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Ten Members Say Nord Stream Extension Not In EU Interests

Ten European governments -- the easternmost members of the European Union -- have complained in a letter that Russia's plans to extend its natural-gas link to Germany run counter to EU interests and risk further destabilizing Ukraine.

The letter, written on November 26, was signed by Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

It calls for a summit-level EU debate on the Nord Stream II project.

Reuters quoted the letter as saying: "The position of the European Commission on the Nord Stream II project will also essentially influence the perception of the EU's common foreign and security policy among its core allies and traditional partners."

A group of European companies in September signed an agreement with Russia's state-controlled Gazprom to expand its Nord Stream pipeline to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.

On November 25, Gazprom said it would halt gas deliveries to Ukraine.

Kyiv has said it could find cheaper supplies elsewhere.

Based on reporting by Reuters, Platts, and

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'Most Of The Dead Are Women In Their 50s': Ukrainian Doctors Still Fighting To Save Lives

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Biden Hints At Talks With Russian, Ukrainian Leaders As West Warns Moscow Over Ukraine

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

U.S. and NATO officials have issued fresh warnings of the possible consequences of any new Russian aggression against neighboring Ukraine, with Washington suggesting that "all options are on the table" if the alliance is forced to respond to an escalation by Moscow.

Later, U.S. President Joe Biden said in response to a reporter's question that "in all probability" he would speak directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in an effort to defuse tensions in the region.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on November 26 that Russia had assembled combat-ready troops, tanks, and heavy military equipment near its border with Ukraine and cautioned Moscow that any force against its neighbor would incur "costs."

Reports of a Russian buildup of more than 90,000 troops recently prompted the United States and Germany to reiterate their support for Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity.

"If Russia uses force against Ukraine that will have costs, that would have consequences," Stoltenberg said in Brussels.

Moscow has denied direct involvement in Kyiv's seven-year war with separatists in eastern Ukraine despite overwhelming evidence of Russian troop and other assistance. It has downplayed the recent reports of its troop movements as an internal matter.

"This is the second time this year that Russia has amassed a large and unusual concentration of forces in the region," Stoltenberg said in an allusion to a purported buildup in the spring that eased soon after a summit between Putin and Biden in June.

Russia this week launched military drills in the Black Sea region near Ukraine.

Earlier on November 26, Zelenskiy said his country was prepared for any Russian escalation and alleged that unidentified Russians and Ukrainians were plotting to overthrow his government next week.

Russia has recently stepped up its involvement in an ongoing feud between Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the West since a highly criticized Belarusian presidential election in 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO's 29 other foreign ministers are scheduled to gather in Latvia on November 30, with Russia's activities high on the agenda.

Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are both expected to attend an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial meeting on December 2-3.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried said on November 26 that a key focus of Blinken's European trip next week would be how to respond to challenges including Russia and Belarus.

"As you can appreciate, all options are on the table and there's a toolkit that includes a whole range of options," Donfried told reporters.

"It's now for the alliance to decide what are the next moves that NATO wants to take," she said of the NATO and OSCE gatherings.

"Next week, we will talk about our assessment of what's happening on Russia's border with Ukraine and we will begin that conversations of what are the options that are on the table and what it is that NATO as an alliance would like to do together."

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Zelenskiy Says Coup Plot Uncovered, Ukraine Ready For Any Escalation With Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks to the press in Kyiv on November 26.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine's intelligence service has uncovered plans to stage a coup involving people from Russia that was due to occur next week.

Zelenskiy did not give full details of the plot nor did he accuse the Kremlin of direct involvement in his comments at a press conference in Kyiv on November 26.

The Kremlin swiftly denied any role in any coup plot.

At the press conference involving journalists from Ukraine and abroad, Zelenskiy also said Ukraine was ready for any escalation from Russia amid recent reports of Russian troops massing in Russia's western regions and in illegally occupied Crimea.

Media outlets including The New York Times and Bloomberg have quoted U.S. officials as warning that Russia might attack this winter, with some saying a potential invasion could be "on a scale far greater" than in 2014, when Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

On the coup allegations, Zelenskiy said he had "certain audio recordings" in which plans for carrying out such a plot on December 1 or 2 were being discussed between unspecified people from Ukraine and Russia.

He said they mentioned Rinat Akhmetov, the Ukrainian billionaire, who didn't personally take part in the conversation, according to Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy stressed he didn't believe the billionaire would get involved in the plot, as it would be a "fatal mistake" for him to take part in the "war" against the president.

"I believe this is a setup of Rinat Akhmetov," Zelenskiy said.

Akhmetov issued a statement on Telegram calling Zelenskiy's claims "an absolute lie" and saying that he was "outraged."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegation of Russia being involved in the planned coup attempt.

"We never do things like that," Peskov said.

Akhmetov owns Ukraine's largest private power utility, DTEK, plus multiple businesses in eastern Ukraine, including steel and iron-ore producers, a bank, insurers, and a television channel.

In his other comments on November 26, Zelenskiy said that Ukraine was in full control of its borders and was ready for any escalation with Russia.

"There is a threat today that there will be war tomorrow," Zelensky told the press conference. "We are entirely prepared for an escalation."

Zelenskiy also said his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, would soon be contacting representatives of Russia about the standoff between the two countries. Separately, Yermak said he would be contacting Dmitry Kozak, President Vladimir Putin's deputy chief of staff.

U.S. intelligence officials and senior figures in Ukraine's military have suggested that as many as 92,000 Russian troops are massed to the north and east of Ukraine -- many in the area around Yelnya, near Russia’s border with its ally Belarus -- and in Crimea, the peninsula that lies south of mainland Ukraine.

Amid Russia’s build-up, CNN this week quoted sources in U.S. President Joe Biden's administration as saying it was considering sending military advisers and new equipment including weapons to Ukraine.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington had "real concerns" about the Russian military moves and a possible new offensive, which he warned would be a "serious mistake."

Moscow, which also massed thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine last spring, has dismissed talk of a potential Russian invasion as "groundless."

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

The President And The Tycoon: Could A Fight Between Ukraine's Leader And Its Richest Man Lead To Real Change?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made bringing the oligarchs to heel a central plank of his successful campaign for president.

For over a year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had been in a battle with renewable energy producers after his government slashed tariffs and failed to pay the companies in a timely fashion.

That saga appeared to be coming to an end when a state-owned firm raised $825 million on November 3 through a bond sale to reimburse the producers.

As of November 23, all the producers had been fully compensated except one: DTEK, a company owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man.

It was not an oversight.

The government's decision to withhold 3 billion-hryvnya ($115 million) payment to DTEK -- a move the company called "shocking" and described as "discrimination" -- was just one of several signs of growing tension between Zelenskiy and Akhmetov, who is widely seen as the most powerful of the influential tycoons known as oligarchs.

For many Ukrainians, the tension is visible when they turn on their television: In recent weeks, stations owned by Akhmetov have been pounding the president with what media observers say is critical coverage -- though he says he exerts no influence over their content or editorial decisions.

With a net worth estimated at more than $7 billion, Rinat Akhmetov is richer than the next three Ukrainian tycoons combined, as well as the country's largest taxpayer and employer.
With a net worth estimated at more than $7 billion, Rinat Akhmetov is richer than the next three Ukrainian tycoons combined, as well as the country's largest taxpayer and employer.

Zelenskiy, whose popularity ratings have been hovering near all-time lows, appears to have the tycoon's media assets in his sights: Earlier this month, he signed legislation that could force Akhmetov to dispose of his television station and other news outlets.

How the struggle between Zelenskiy and Akhmetov plays out could have substantial economic and political consequences for Ukraine, analysts say, both over the next few years and further in the future, after a presidential election scheduled for 2024.

It has been brewing for some time.

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A comedian with a popular TV show but no prior political experience, Zelenskiy -- now 43 -- won the 2019 presidential election by a large margin, riding a surge of support based in part on his pledges to stand up to the handful of tycoons who have wielded outsized influence over Ukraine's economy, government, and media over much of its 30 years as an independent country.

In office, he has made taming the tycoons -- or "deoligarchization," as his administration calls it -- the cornerstone of his presidency.

"If Zelenskiy wins this confrontation, it will be much easier for him to run for a second term" in 2024, Yevhen Mahda, director of the Kyiv-based Institute of World Politics, told RFE/RL.

The "oligarchs" enjoy little sympathy among the millions of Ukrainians facing poverty or stark economic challenges, many of whom believe the magnates accumulated their wealth at the expense of the state.

But analysts say they have been able to maintain sway through several changes of government since the 1991 Soviet collapse -- including two that followed massive popular protests against corruption, among other things -- in part by bankrolling officials and lawmakers.

Akhmetov, 56, is the biggest in terms of revenue from businesses ranging from metals, mining, and energy to banking, telecommunications, real estate, and the media -- a portfolio whose size and breadth means almost any law or regulation is likely to impact his interests.

While he is dogged by rumors of alleged criminal activity in amassing his assets -- for which he reportedly had been denied entry to the United States -- the tycoon has never been charged with any crime. He denies any wrongdoing.

With a net worth estimated by Forbes at more than $7 billion, Akhmetov is richer than the next three Ukrainian tycoons combined. He is also the country's largest taxpayer and employer, with about 200,000 workers nationwide.

That gives him enormous power to lobby at all levels of government for policies favorable to his companies, such as low tariffs on ore transportation and high tariffs for power, analysts and business executives say.

Akhmetov -- who briefly served in parliament in the 2000s, representing the Russia-leaning Party of Regions, which disbanded after the Euromaidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power -- can turn to dozens of lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada for support in getting policies that favor him enacted, according to Ukrainian media. The magnate has denied he has "control" over any deputies.

However, Zelenskiy has an advantage over his predecessors in dealing with lobbying from tycoons: The seventh person to serve as president since independence, he is the first to control a majority in the Rada.

That means that at least in some cases, he can push legislation through without needing the support of lawmakers who may be loyal to a particular tycoon.

Anti-Oligarch Law

But the billionaires' control over several major TV stations has been a potential weak spot for Zelenskiy -- and he is now seeking to end that vulnerability, putting him on a collision course with tycoons including Akhmetov.

In June, Zelenskiy introduced a controversial bill that legally defined the term "oligarch" based on several criteria, including wealth, industry dominance, political activity, and influence over media assets.

Anyone meeting certain benchmarks in three of those areas is to be labeled an "oligarch" and barred from participating in both political activity -- such as financing parties -- and state asset sales.

The bill was passed by the Rada in September and signed by Zelenskiy on November 5. It enters force in May 2022.

The National Security and Defense Council (RNBO), a nonelected government body headed by Zelenskiy, will determine who meets the criteria, raising concerns about selective judgement.

A designated "oligarch" can potentially get off the list by either ending participation in political life or, more simply, selling their media assets to a nonaffiliated third party.

For most tycoons, neither of those is an attractive prospect, according to analysts who say the owners use their media assets as tools to advance their business and political interests, including by defending allies and attacking opponents. Akhmetov denies that he has done this.

Ironically, Zelenskiy's swift transformation from actor who played a president on TV to actual president is widely seen as having been aided by the media assets of Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a tycoon who has been publicly banned from the United States due to alleged corruption.

Former President Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire confectionary magnate whom Zelenskiy defeated in the 2019 election after the incumbent had a falling-out with Kolomoyskiy, announced this month that he had sold his television stations to their current and former journalists to avoid being declared an oligarch under the law.

Poroshenko heads the European Solidarity party, the third-largest in the Rada, and is considered a presidential contender in 2024. He has criticized the law, calling it an attack on freedom of the press.

Akhmetov has so far held firm, not announcing any sale of his media assets. In a response to questions from RFE/RL about his attitude toward the new law, Akhmetov rejected the idea that he is an "oligarch," describing himself as an "investor." He said he would be ready to sue in Ukrainian and international courts to protect his reputation.

Orysia Lutsevych, an analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House, says tycoons like Akhmetov have strong legal teams and are skilled at defending themselves. Akhmetov has used the services of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, a Washington-based international law firm that is also the top U.S. lobbying firm by revenue. "It's clear that Akhmetov will not just give up. He will fight back," Lutsevych said.

He may already be doing so.

Akhmetov's television station Ukraine-24 has become a "refuge" for opponents of Zelenskiy, according to the Kyiv-based media outlet Ukrayinska pravda, frequently giving critics of his administration a prominent platform.

In his response to questions from RFE/RL, Akhmetov said that he did not exercise influence over the content of Ukraine-24's programming. He said the channel offered a platform for both officials and government opponents to express their views. "If in the past few months there has been more criticism of the authorities than previously [on Ukraine-24], then that is, I think, a question for the authorities," Akhmetov told RFE/RL in an e-mailed response to questions.

Power Vertical?

Mykhaylo Minakov, an analyst who is the senior adviser on Ukraine at the Kennan Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, says that Zelenskiy's attempts to reduce the influence of tycoons goes beyond the "anti-oligarch law."

He says Zelenskiy is trying to replace the oligarchic system that has dominated the country since independence in 1991 with a "power vertical" -- a system in which the president has more real power at all levels of government -- "and it's making [the tycoons] nervous."

He points to Zelenskiy's use of the RNBO to rein in tycoons and alleged criminal kingpins as a sign of his attempts to consolidate power.

The RNBO has slapped sanctions on a few tycoons, including powerful Moscow-friendly businessman and parliament deputy Viktor Medvedchuk, as well as dozens of alleged crime bosses since the start of the year, a tool that enables Zelenskiy to bypass the prosecutor's office and courts.

Amid speculation that Akhmetov could be next, he told RFE/RL that there was no legal basis for the RNBO to target him with sanctions.

Ukraine's Western backers have long called for the government to reduce the influence of tycoons. However, they want rule-of-law improvements, such as strengthening the independence of the judiciary and anti-monopoly agency, rather than through centralization of power.

Minakov also said that Zelenskiy was seeking to curtail the wealth of tycoons through a new bill -- known informally as the "anti-Akhmetov" law -- that would raise taxes on businesses and give more power to the tax authorities. The bill has been watered down since being introduced to parliament but could still be a victory for Zelenskiy in his fight with the magnates if it passes.

Analysts are split over how the tension between Zelenskiy and Akhmetov will develop -- and who is more likely to end up the winner.

Oleksiy Holobutskiy, deputy director of the Agency for Modeling Situations, a nongovernmental think tank, says he believes that Zelenskiy missed his chance to take on Akhmetov shortly after coming to office, when his ratings were still sky-high.

The tycoon is now taking advantage of Zelenskiy's vulnerability to "put him in his place," Holobutskiy said.

However, Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of the Kyiv-based Center for Applied Political Research, says Akhmetov is underestimating Zelenskiy's strength, as did Medvedchuk.

"I think there will be a response from Zelenskiy. And a tough one," he said.

Sofia Sereda of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

What's Behind The Russia-Ukraine War Fears -- And What Might Actually Happen?

Troops transport trucks on a pontoon bridge across a river during joint military exercises held by Russia and Belarus in September.

Talk of war is again in the air. When Russia massed thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine last spring, reports and rumors swirled that the Kremlin might launch a big new offensive seven years after it seized control of Crimea and fomented a separatist war in the Donbas region that continues to this day.

Several months later, the same fears have surfaced with even greater force. Media including The New York Times and Bloomberg have cited U.S. officials as warning that Russia might attack this winter, with some saying a potential invasion could be "on a scale far greater" than in 2014.

The buildup of forces is evident in western Russia and also in Crimea, according to satellite images.

It's impossible to ascertain exactly what Russia's intentions are -- or even whether President Vladimir Putin has made any specific plans or is, at this point, creating options. But here are some of the most important questions about the tense situation -- and some possible answers.

Is there really a threat of major new Russian military action?

Yes -- or at least, the evidence suggests it.

U.S. intelligence officials and senior figures in Ukraine's military have suggested that as many as 92,000 Russian troops are massed to the north and east of Ukraine -- many in the area around Yelnya, near Russia's border with ally Belarus -- and in Crimea, the peninsula that lies south of mainland Ukraine.

Amid Russia's build-up, CNN this week quoted sources in U.S. President Joe Biden's administration as saying it was considering sending military advisers and new equipment including weapons to Ukraine.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington had "real concerns" about the Russian military moves and a possible new offensive, which he warned would be a "serious mistake."

While Moscow has dismissed talk of a potential Russian invasion as "groundless," comments from an array of officials and analysts close to the Kremlin have sent a different and more dire message: that Russia may take action if Washington and the West do not address its ever more assertively stated concerns about the situation in the Donbas and, more broadly, NATO ties with Kyiv and Western military activity in Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and elsewhere.

When Russia has launched offensives in the past, such as in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 and in Georgia in 2008, it has claimed to have been provoked. And in recent weeks, Moscow has repeatedly accused Kyiv and the United States and its allies of provoking it, including with what NATO says have been long-planned exercises in Eastern Europe and routine naval missions in the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, the increased concerns about Russia's intentions toward Ukraine do not stem from troop movements alone. In the past six months, Putin and several other senior officials have published incendiary articles about Ukraine, questioning its right to exist as an independent state and dismissing its democratically elected political leadership as "ignorant and unreliable."

The secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council, close Putin associate Nikolai Patrushev, asserted recently that what awaits Ukraine was an "Afghan scenario," citing what he claimed was instability caused by weapons imports from the West and the purported danger of the country imploding. He cited no specific evidence.

And in a statement this week, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service denounced what it called U.S. "provocations" and ominously warned that "we observed a similar situation in Georgia ahead of the events of 2008" -- when Russian forces drove deep into that country and then backed the independence declarations of two breakaway regions, leaving large numbers of troops in both of them.

In addition to sending signals to the West, such remarks may serve to ready Russians for potential new military action, analysts say.

"This is in large part aimed at a Russian domestic audience ahead of launching some major operation," Mykhaylo Honchar, president of the Center for Global Studies Strategy XXI, a Kyiv-based think tank, told Current Time.

Why now?

Russia's leadership may believe that it could take advantage of a volatile climate in the region, where Moscow's own actions have contributed to recent tensions. Some analysts contend that this could make it easier for Russia to strike at Ukraine without meeting the kind of unified response it might at a calmer time.

Poland has been grappling with an influx of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, who have been lured to neighboring Belarus with promises of easy passage into the European Union. Even as it's engaged in its own standoff with the EU over judicial independence, Warsaw has described the migrant crisis as an operation to destabilize Europe concocted by Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka with Putin's blessing, a claim both Minsk and Moscow deny.

At the same time, Moldova has accused Russia of blackmail as it struggles to maintain energy supplies amid a natural-gas crunch, with Moscow saying the poorest country in Europe is not paying its bills. Critics also say Moscow has sought to demonstrate Europe's reliance on its gas supplies as it ratchets up the pressure for Germany to approve the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would allow more Russian gas to bypass Ukraine en route to Europe.

Three are also worries that Moscow is seeking to increase tensions by claiming that NATO exercises and other military operations are deliberately provocative and show that the West is not willing to adhere to "red lines" cited by Putin.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Romanian Service, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana said that "everything we do near the Black Sea and on NATO's eastern flank is of a purely defensive and absolutely transparent character."

Meanwhile, Russia's "red lines" have been shifting ominously in recent weeks and months, amounting to Kremlin demands that are increasingly unacceptable to NATO, Washington, and the West -- and perhaps most of all to Ukraine, which Putin has made clear he does not want to be able to choose its partners or conduct its foreign policy as a sovereign country.

In the past, Russia made clear that NATO membership for Ukraine was a "red line" -- but recently it has been warning against any expansion of the alliance's military cooperation with Kyiv.

Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, wrote on Twitter that in her assessment, "Moscow's military intimidation is posturing for assurances of neutrality" of Ukraine, adding that "if that doesn't happen, a military invasion is on the table."

The show of force comes as the Kremlin seeks a new summit between Putin and Biden. Recent remarks suggest that Moscow might use such a meeting to press its case for sweeping "security guarantees" from the West, possibly including a pledge that Ukraine would never join NATO.

What would Russia's goals be?

Increased influence in Ukraine, for one thing.

When Russia fomented unrest in the Donbas and backed forces that have held swaths of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions since the conflict there erupted in 2014, it was widely seen as an effort to leverage control over a relatively small part of Ukraine into powerful influence on the country's government and foreign policy, including making certain it would never join NATO.

But as the Donbas war drags on with little or no progress toward implementation of Minsk-2 -- a 2015 peace plan that could deeply undercut Kyiv's power if carried out in accordance with the Kremlin's wishes -- Putin may fear that goal will never be achieved, leaving Russia with control over a piece of Ukraine but far short of the real prize -- as much control over the country as possible.

In an article in Politico last week, Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation think tank, quoted a former Russian lawmaker and diplomat as saying that "to get [the] Donbas but lose Ukraine would represent a defeat for the Kremlin."

"The current buildup of forces suggests Moscow now believes that defeat is forthcoming," Charap wrote. "Unless it escalates."

"Russia might well be prepared to attack far deeper into Ukrainian territory and has the military capability to do so."

While many analysts say that an attack aimed to take over all of Ukraine is extremely unlikely, some believe that Russia might seek to seize territory in eastern and even central Ukraine, possibly moving to control a swath of the south from the Russian border and the Donbas to Crimea, which it already holds.

Others think that Moscow would be more likely to limit itself to an escalation of the simmering war in the Donbas, which has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014, in a bid to force concessions from Kyiv without staging an open invasion that could lead to severe bloodshed and international opprobrium.

What does Russia stand to lose?

If Russia were to openly launch a new invasion of Ukraine, a strong Western reaction would be bound to follow. At a minimum, analysts argue, Moscow could expect a new round of sanctions and the almost certain collapse of Nord Stream 2, which Russia has expended great resources on and clearly sees as an economically and geopolitically crucial project.

If Russia were to invade Ukrainian cities with ground troops, a desperate fightback by Ukrainian forces -- now far more experienced and better equipped than they were seven years ago -- could lead to hundreds or even thousands of Russian soldiers returning home in body bags, a prospect that could give Putin pause as he seeks to build his legacy and possibly to remain president for years to come.

"There is no way that the [Russian] High Command cannot know that there would be many soldiers coming home crippled, wounded, or as 'Cargo 200s' -- the dead," author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote recently in The Moscow Times.

"Nonetheless, if need be, the Russians could certainly build up a commanding force around Ukraine, and if Putin is willing to brave the international sanctions and condemnation and domestic outrage such a bloody war would generate, then an invasion can go ahead."

Galeotti wrote that "if Putin really does fear Ukraine's westward drift and, especially, the danger that NATO forces would begin to be emplaced in the country...then he may feel that delay will only make an eventual strike harder. Better to move sooner than later."

"Then again, maybe this is all another piece of political theater to try and force Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow on its terms," he added.

Is Putin bluffing?

That's not clear yet. But a look at Russia's past actions could potentially help parse the situation today and predict what might happen this winter.

Since Moscow's seizure of Crimea and the start of the Donbas war, Western analysts and intelligence officials have warned more than once of a potentially imminent new Russian attack. No such offensive materialized amid the buildup last spring, and it ended up looking less like a prelude to a wider war than like a show of force ahead of negotiations with Biden's administration and NATO exercises in Europe.

That may suggest that the current buildup, which in large part comprises forces that have remained in border areas since the previous moves in the spring, is part of Moscow's policy of maintaining pressure on the West -- as Putin suggested in recent remarks -- and putting teeth behind its claims to be deeply concerned about NATO movements near its borders.

"Putin's regime is operating on a razor's edge, because it wants to launch Nord Stream 2 and if it starts even a covert military operation then this will ultimately mean the end of [that project]," Honchar said. "I think the main idea here might be just to show that Russia can do this."

Carmen Valica of RFE/RL's Romanian Service and Vladimir Mikhailov of Current Time contributed to this report

Merkel Urges EU Unity On Russia, Assures Poland, Ukraine Amid Border Tensions

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a joint press conference after talks in Berlin on November 25.

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that the European Union needs to be ready to increase sanctions against Russia if the situation worsens near either the Ukrainian border or the Belarus-Poland border.

She issued the call for EU unity and an implied caution to Moscow during a meeting in Berlin with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and ahead of a phone call later in the day with Ukraine's president.

European and U.S. officials blame Moscow for stoking and supporting Belarus's "hybrid" campaign to spark a migrant crisis at its border with the EU and warn of Russian troop buildups near Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists are in their eighth year of a war against the central authorities.

At Merkel's meeting with Morawiecki, the two discussed the acute crisis as thousands of third-country migrants camp out on EU member Poland's border with Belarus in hopes of reaching the European Union.

Merkel said she thinks Poland is "doing everything possible" to avoid any further escalation on its border, where hundreds of migrants were reportedly forced back after Belarusian security troops helped breach a border fence earlier on November 25.

Merkel, who will soon give way to successor Olaf Scholz, expressed Germany's "full solidarity" with Warsaw as it confronts the border crisis.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry repeated on November 25 that Belarusian and Russian air forces were jointly patrolling the country's western border, cooperation that began last week.

Morawiecki said Poland would not give in to "political blackmail" regarding the border crisis and said the EU must prepare additional sanctions targeting Belarus, including on trade.

He said his country was "protecting" Germany and the entire EU from a major wave of migrants.

Merkel also issued a warning on the situation in western Russia and Ukraine, where reports for weeks have suggested a Russian troop buildup is under way.

Merkel said de-escalation was always the preferred option but added, "Any further aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine would carry a high price."

A spokesman for Merkel, Steffen Seibert, later said that the German leader had spoken by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to "emphasize" to Kyiv her support for Ukraine's "independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity."

She said any effort to undercut Ukrainian independence "would not go without consequences."

Seibert said, via Twitter, that they also discussed the situation at the Belarus-EU border.

Russia this week launched military drills in the Black Sea, south of Ukraine, saying it needed to sharpen the combat-readiness of its conventional and nuclear forces because of what Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called "the growing activity of NATO countries near Russia's borders."

Meanwhile, Ukraine launched its own exercises near its northern border to increase preparedness for a potential spillover of the Poland-Belarus border situation.

U.S. President Joe Biden on November 24 reiterated "unwavering support" for Kyiv as reports suggested there was a debate over possibly boosting weapons supplies to Ukraine.

Moscow has called allegations of a buildup near its border with Ukraine "groundless."

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, and has been backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Biden Vows 'Unwavering Support' For Ukraine Amid Heightened Tensions With Russia

Ukrainian border guards patrol their country's frontier with Belarus in the Volyn region. (file photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden has reiterated "unwavering support" for Kyiv as Russia and Ukraine both launched military exercises near their border amid rising tensions between the two neighbors.

The November 24 events follow reports of a large Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border that raised fears of a possible invasion.

In a November 24 statement honoring the millions of Ukrainians who died in the Holodomor famine of the 1930s, Biden said that the United States "reaffirms our commitment to the people of Ukraine today and our unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and has been backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

Kyiv and its Western backers have raised alarm bells in recent weeks over a Russian military buildup near Ukraine, whose military intelligence chief claimed on November 21 that Russia has amassed 92,000 troops near its borders and was readying an attack for early February.

Moscow has called such allegations “groundless.”

Russia staged military drills in the Black Sea, south of Ukraine, saying it needed to sharpen the combat-readiness of its conventional and nuclear forces because of what Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called "the growing activity of NATO countries near Russia's borders."

During the drills, Russian warplanes and ships practiced repelling air attacks on naval bases and responding with air strikes, Interfax reported.

Ukraine, meanwhile, launched exercises of its own near its northern frontier, which it said were meant to beef up preparedness for a potential spillover of a monthslong migrant crisis on the border between European Union member Poland and Belarus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 24 told European Council President Charles Michel that he was concerned by Ukraine's "provocations" to inflate tensions in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin said.

Putin "expressed concern in connection with continuing provocations of the Ukrainian side aimed at exacerbating the situation on the line of contact," it said in a statement.

The previous day, Shoigu complained that U.S. bombers had rehearsed a nuclear strike on Russia, coming too close to the Russian border -- drills the Pentagon said had adhered to international protocols.

Michel confirmed his call with Putin in a tweet and said that the EU “is following closely the military buildup along Russia’s border with Ukraine.”

“Stressed Russia’s responsibility for advancing peaceful settlement in eastern Ukraine,” he wrote in a separate tweet.

Meanwhile, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas expressed her Baltic state's shared concern after talks in Paris with French President Emmanual Macron, and she urged the European Union to be "clear on the European side that the price of taking any steps toward Ukraine will be so high that it will act as a deterrent and make Russia reconsider."

She warned it was urgent for the EU and the United States to agree on a common deterrent because a migrant crisis on the EU-Belarus border blamed on Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the postelection transition in Berlin, and France's run-up to a presidential election could present a "perfect storm" for Putin to test the West's resolve.

Amid questions about Putin's intentions in the current atmosphere, Reuters quoted sources in U.S. policy circles as suggesting the Russian leader could be angling for a second summit with Biden, who met with the Kremlin leader in Switzerland in June with mutual relations reportedly at their worst since the Cold War.

The United States and NATO have reaffirmed their support for Ukraine including through warship maneuvers this month in the Black Sea and a delivery of U.S. patrol boats to the Ukrainian Navy.

Ukraine's Border Guard Service, meanwhile, held what it called a "special operation" at the border with Belarus on November 24, including drone exercises and military drills for anti-tank and airborne units amid concerns that a migrant crisis at the Polish-Belarusian frontier could spill into Ukrainian territory.

The service said in a statement that the operation is part of measures to "increase the protection and defense of the Ukrainian border in order to prevent a migration crisis and combat illegal activities."​

The operation was conducted jointly with the National Guard, the National Police, and the Armed Forces, the service said.

Volodymyr Nikiforenko, the deputy head of the Border Guard Service, said the main task of the operation was to prevent illegal migrants from crossing the state border and entering Ukraine.

Kyiv has also voiced worries that the border with Belarus, a close Russian ally, could be used by Russia to stage a military assault.

Ukraine has deployed 8,500 troops and police officers to guard its border with Belarus, aiming to prevent possible attempts by migrants to breach the frontier.

It also said some of its airborne units carried out paratrooper jumps in the southern Mykolayiv region, near the country's main seaport of Odesa and Russian-occupied Crimea.

Amid the rising tensions in the region, the U.S. and Russian top military officers spoke over the phone on November 23.

General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed "current questions of international security," Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on November 23.

The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed the call, saying in a statement that Gerasimov and Milley discussed "security-related issues of concern."

The Russian Defense Ministry and the Pentagon did not provide further details.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

U.S., Russian Military Chiefs Speak On The Phone Amid Heightened Tensions Over Ukraine

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (left) and his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov (file photo)

The United States' and Russia's top military officers spoke over the phone on November 23, amid heightened Western concerns over Russian military moves near the Ukrainian border.

Kyiv and its Western backers have raised alarm bells in recent days over a Russian military buildup near Ukraine, whose military intelligence chief claimed on November 21 that Russia has amassed 92,000 troops near its borders and was readying an attack in early February.

The Kremlin has called such allegations “groundless.”

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, and has been backing separatists in two of Ukraine's eastern provinces in an ongoing conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed "current questions of international security," Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on November 23.

The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed the call, saying in a statement that Gerasimov and Milley discussed "security-related issues of concern."

"The phone call is a continuation of communication between both leaders to ensure risk reduction and operational de-confliction," it said.

The Russian Defense Ministry and the Pentagon did not provide further details.

Earlier in the day, two patrol boats given to the Ukrainian Navy by the United States arrived at the Black Sea port of Odesa aboard a cargo ship, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said the two Island-class patrol boats were “part of the more than $2.5 billion in security assistance the U.S. has provided Ukraine since 2014.”

“The vessels will help strengthen Ukraine's maritime security and bolster the Ukrainian Navy’s interoperability with NATO,” it said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on November 23 that any U.S. moves to send more hardware and military advisers to Ukraine would only raise tensions further.

During a visit to Washington last week, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said he had requested increased U.S. military assistance.

Reznikov declined to name the weapons he had requested, saying only that in order "to stop [Russian] aggression, we need to show the cost will be too high."

With reporting by AFP, TASS, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On Russian-Linked Transadria Over Nord Stream 2 Project

A technician checks equipment at the Slavyanskaya compressor station, the starting point of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline

The United States has announced further sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, citing Russian-linked Transadria Ltd. and its Marlin vessel.

A November 22 statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the action "is in line with the United States' continuing opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the U.S. government's continued compliance with the Protecting Europe's Energy Security Act of 2019 (PEESA)."

"With today's action, the administration has now sanctioned eight persons and identified 17 of their vessels as blocked property pursuant to PEESA in connection with Nord Stream 2."

The statement said sanctions will be placed on Transadria under the act and that the Marlin will be considered "blocked property," without providing specific details.

The controversial $11 billion natural-gas pipeline runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Russia has said it is ready to begin shipping gas through the pipeline, which was completed in September, but German and European regulators must first complete a lengthy approval process.

5 Things To Know About Nord Stream 2
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Germany on November 16 announced it was suspending the approval process because the Swiss-based consortium behind the Russian pipeline needed to form a German subsidiary in order to secure an operating license.

The United States, Ukraine, and several members of the European Union oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on the grounds that it endangers European energy security. The pipeline would also deprive Ukraine of crucial transit fees.

Still, some European countries, including Germany, say the pipeline is vital to secure energy supplies amid surging prices.

The pipeline operator, Swiss-based Nord Stream 2 AG, is owned by Russian state oil giant Gazprom.

The U.S. administration in May waived the idea of placing sanctions on the pipeline operator itself, as well as its German CEO, saying Russia would complete it regardless of the economic penalties imposed and in a desire not to strain U.S.-German relations.

That decision means vessels working on the pipeline could be hit with sanctions but not the Russian-owned company that hired them.

To help soften the blow to Ukraine from the launch of Nord Stream 2, the United States and Germany agreed to invest in the country’s alternative energy industry.

"Even as the administration continues to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including via our sanctions, we continue to work with Germany and other allies and partners to reduce the risks posed by the pipeline to Ukraine and frontline NATO and EU countries and to push back against harmful Russian activities, including in the energy sphere," Blinken said in his statement

With reporting by Reuters, NBC, and dpa

IMF Approves $700 Million Loan Tranche To Ukraine In Boost For Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) meets with IMF officials in February 2020.

WASHINGTON -- The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved a second loan tranche worth nearly $700 million to Ukraine, giving a boost to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government as it struggles to meet reform targets set by the lender.

The Washington-based organization, considered the world’s lender of last resort, said on November 22 that the IMF-backed economic program aims to help Kyiv “address the effects of the COVID-19 shock, sustain the economic recovery, and move ahead on important structural reforms to reduce key vulnerabilities.”

In September, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Kyiv expected to receive the second tranche from the IMF under a $5 billion loan program before the end of the year.

An IMF mission visited Kyiv in September to evaluate Ukraine’s progress on several key reforms, including judicial, central bank, and anti-corruption legislation, that the loans are contingent upon.

The IMF last year approved the 18-month loan to help the country deal with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Ukraine received its first tranche totaling $2.1 billion in June.

The latest decision is welcome news for Zelenskiy's government, which is grappling with surging coronavirus cases, higher inflation, and growing jitters about Russian troop movements on its eastern borders.

"Grateful to @IMFNews Board of Governors for the decision to complete the review of the stand-by program on the allocation of a tranche of about $700 million," Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter. "We'll use these funds to support the financial system & combat #COVID19 consequences. The IMF program will be continued."

Ukraine’s parliament in July passed judicial reform, which has been a top priority for the nation’s Western backers because it is seen as essential to enhancing the rule of law and curbing corruption.

Civil society activists say outside experts are necessary because the nation’s judicial system is deeply corrupt and incapable of reforming itself, pointing to past failures to rid itself of compromised judges.

International business associations say Ukraine’s corrupt judiciary is a major hindrance to foreign investment.

With reporting by Reuters

Staff Of Shuttered English-Language Kyiv Post Launches New Media Project

Before it was abruptly shuttered earlier this month, the Kyiv Post had been an important source of information for Ukraine's expat community. (file photo)

A group of journalists in Ukraine say they have launched a new media project after leaving the Kyiv Post amid a stand-off with the newspaper's owner over editorial independence.

The reporters wrote on Facebook on November 22 that the newly founded Kyiv Independent, "brought to you by the former editorial team of the Kyiv Post" would rely on fundraising and donors to finance its operations.

"We are launching The Kyiv Independent because Ukraine needs on-the-ground English-language journalism of the highest quality and our community needs a news source it can trust," they said.

"We are not dependent on a rich owner or an oligarch. We will rely first and foremost on fundraising from our readers and donors, and later on commercial activities," it added.

The Kyiv Post was Ukraine's largest independent English-language newspaper until abruptly shutting its operations after more than a quarter-century amid a dispute between the owner and journalists.

Adnan Kivan, the Kyiv Post publisher and a real-estate businessman, announced the closure on the paper's website on November 8, saying it would be temporary. He did not give a reason for the move, though it did not appear to be financial.

However, a group of about 30 reporters and editors at the newspaper said in a joint statement at the time that the sudden closure came on the heels of Kivan's attempt to "infringe" on their editorial independence.

The Kyiv Post has been critical of Ukraine's leadership at times, highlighting slow progress on Western-backed reforms, including the crucial fight against corruption.

The paper was an important source of information for Ukraine's expat community, including foreign embassy staff.

U.S. 'Deeply Concerned' After Bulgarian President Refers To Crimea As 'Russian'

Herro Mustafa, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria (file photo)

The United States has voiced serious "concern" regarding Bulgarian President Rumen Radev's recent statement that Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, a region forcibly annexed by Moscow in 2014, was currently "Russian."

Radev, 58, made the remark during a TV debate between him and his center-right opponent, Anastas Gerdjikov, ahead of a presidential runoff vote on November 21, which he won by a landslide.

Radev said Bulgaria must keep pragmatic ties with Moscow and should not view it as an enemy, not least because of close historical and cultural links.

Questioned by Gerdjikov during the debate about whether he regrets his criticism of EU sanctions on Russia, imposed after the 2014 annexation, Radev responded that Crimea was "Russian at the moment," adding, "What else can it be?"

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev

In 2016, Radev had campaigned for the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia in the election that saw him win his first term as president.

"The United States is deeply concerned by the recent statements of Bulgarian President Rumen Radev in which he referred to Crimea as 'Russian,'" the U.S. Embassy in Sofia said in a statement on November 22.

"The United States, G7, European Union, and NATO have all been clear and united in our position that, despite Russia’s attempted annexation and ongoing occupation, Crimea is Ukraine," it said.

"All of us, including Bulgaria, declared at the Crimea Platform Summit in August that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine and that we do not and will not recognize Russia's efforts to legitimize its illegal seizure and occupation of the peninsula. In recent days we have communicated our deep concern to the Bulgarian government in Washington and in Sofia," the statement said.

Later in the day, Radev's office issued a statement saying that the head of state "has repeatedly stated that the annexation of Crimea is in violation of international law."

"From a legal point of view, Crimea belongs to Ukraine and our country has repeatedly stated its support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity," it added.

Following Radev's comments on Crimea last week, Ukraine on November 19 summoned the Bulgarian ambassador to Kyiv to voice concern about Radev’s comments.

“The words of the current Bulgarian president do not contribute to the development of good neighborly relations between Ukraine and Bulgaria and are sharply dissonant with Sofia’s official position on supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on November 19.

Radev, who campaigned for the November election on an anti-corruption platform, took 66 percent of the vote in the runoff after falling just short of a majority in the first round.

With reporting by Reuters,, and AP

As Gas Prices Surge, Bioenergy Could Help Heat Ukraine. So Why Is It On The Back Burner? 

The new biomass combined heat and power plant in Zhytomyr

ZHYTOMYR, Ukraine -- A five-minute drive from the center of Zhytomyr, a city 140 kilometers west of Kyiv, local and foreign officials gathered on November 18 to celebrate the opening of a new plant to supply heat and hot water to dozens of nearby apartment buildings.

The $10 million project, financed largely through grants and cheap loans from Western financial institutions and the Swiss government, looks unremarkable from the outside: It could easily be mistaken for a simple warehouse were it not for the slender gray smokestack jutting toward the sky.

But inside the box-like structure, wood chips will be used for the first time by the city as a fuel source to keep households warm as Zhytomyr seeks to cut back on the consumption of natural gas, a commodity that has been at the heart of some of Ukraine’s biggest domestic and foreign struggles.

Zhytomyr Mayor Serhiy Sukhomlyn, shown in his office, says the city is already warming two schools with straw.
Zhytomyr Mayor Serhiy Sukhomlyn, shown in his office, says the city is already warming two schools with straw.

The project is the first of five biomass-fueled power plants the city plans to launch, Mayor Serhiy Sukhomlyn told the audience.

Together, they will cut the amount of natural gas consumed by the city’s heating company by as much as 70 percent, he said.

Ukraine’s reliance on natural gas imports to heat its homes, schools, hospitals, and industrial facilities has been a noose around its neck since the country achieved independence from the Soviet Union 30 years ago, providing Russia with a powerful lever to keep Kyiv in its sphere of influence.

The nation is being reminded of that once again as natural gas prices surge to record highs ahead of the winter season, squeezing state budget revenues and raising the risk of an energy crisis in the coming months.

According to energy experts and officials such as Sukhomlyn, what’s happening in Zhytomyr shows that Ukraine could substantially reduce its use of natural gas for heating by tapping its enormous resources of biomass, such as wood and plant waste.

“We hope that Zhytomyr will become an inspiration for many other cities in Ukraine,” Claude Wild, the Swiss ambassador to Ukraine, said at the ceremony.

Advocates say biomass is one of a number of tools Kyiv could use to clear a pathway to “gas independence,” along with increased energy efficiency and domestic natural gas production.

They lament that the nation’s centralized heating sector – which accounts for about one-fifth of all gas consumption in Ukraine -- has failed to make much headway to date.

Government subsidies and a lack of competition in the heating sector are partially to blame, experts say.

Kyrylo Tomlyak, the manager of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s (EBRD) bioenergy program in Ukraine, said the transition is a “difficult process” but one that “can and must be done in other cities.”

Home And Hearth

Ukraine consumes about 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas a year, largely for heating and industrial purposes, but can only cover two-thirds of its needs from domestic production.

The remaining 10 bcm must be imported – indirectly from Russia -- costing the cash-strapped nation billions of dollars a year.

Municipal-owned district heating companies -- which use gas-fired boilers or CHPs to produce heat -- consume about 6 bcm to supply high-rise apartment buildings, state-run institutions such as schools and hospitals, and religious organizations.

Soviet-era housing in Zhytomyr. District heating companies typically own gas-fired boilers and the hot water pipeline network that connects them to buildings.
Soviet-era housing in Zhytomyr. District heating companies typically own gas-fired boilers and the hot water pipeline network that connects them to buildings.

Experts say these heating companies are particularly ripe for a transition to locally sourced biomass, which is economically competitive with natural gas, especially in today’s high price environment.

Yuriy Vitrenko, the new chief executive officer of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned gas giant and the chief supplier to district heating companies, told RFE/RL during a visit to Washington in June that he would push for their transition to biomass.

“As a national company it's our job to solve national problems,” Vitrenko said. “So we should be driving this change to make [heating companies] more energy efficient, to enable them to switch from gas to biomass.”

Biomass is not only a cleaner, renewable fuel, its wider use would also create local jobs and keep cash in the country, said Tomlyak of the EBRD, which has funded several biomass projects in Ukraine including the new plant in Zhytomyr.

Tomlyak said forecasts show Ukraine will have to spend at least $100 billion on hydrocarbon imports over the next three decades if it does not take any additional steps to curtail consumption, including through bioenergy substitution.

“In the long-term perspective, it is more profitable for Ukraine to invest in bioenergy solutions and have energy independence and security,” he said.

Self-sufficiency in energy is particularly crucial for Ukraine in light of its severely strained relations with Russia, which seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backs separatists who have controlled parts of the industrial Donbas region since the start of a war against Kyiv’s forces the following month.

Many other countries are seeking to increase their use of biomass.

At the UN climate conference that it hosted in Glasgow this month, the United Kingdom said it would publish its biomass strategy next year.

However, there are hurdles to such ambitions in Ukraine.

Concerned about the potential for popular discontent and the need for stability, the country still regulates the price of gas sold to district heating companies, leaving them with little incentive to invest in alternative sources or energy efficiency.

District heating companies are paying about $280 for 1000 cubic meters of natural gas compared with spot market prices of around $1,100.

Industrial enterprises and some budget organizations like hospitals pay market prices for natural gas and, as a result, have transitioned much quicker to biomass.

Kernel Holding, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural companies, has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build CHPs that burn sunflower seed shells to generate energy.

Biomass now accounts for 9 percent of Ukraine’s total heat production, with natural gas making up 80 percent and coal the rest, according to Heorhiy Heletuha, the head of the Bioenergy Association of Ukraine.

Heletuha estimates that biomass, such as wood chips and sunflower seed shells, already substitutes the equivalent of 4bcm of natural gas a year. Industry accounts for the lion’s share of those savings.

It Ain't Easy

Prices for biomass, especially that which can be processed into pellets for long-distance transport, are tied to the price of natural gas, said Roman Shved, the chief executive officer of Ukrteplo, a leading biomass operator.

When natural gas prices rise, demand for biomass increases as a cheaper alternative, pushing its price higher.

That can lead to a situation in which biomass is cheaper on the open market than natural gas, but is still more expensive than Ukraine’s subsidized gas price, making its use by district heating companies uneconomical.

“It is not easy to do business in that environment,” Shved told RFE/RL. “It is ironic because we have a lot of biomass that could be used but isn’t because of [government] policy.”

He said Ukrteplo this year pulled out of its investment in a wood chip-fueled boiler in Slavutych, a city in northern Ukraine, because it was not paid in full for the heat it had supplied to the district heating company.

Ukrteplo’s fate in Slavutych highlights another major problem with the district heating industry’s slow transition to biomass – a lack of money.

District heating companies typically own gas-fired boilers and the hot water pipeline network that connects to buildings.

Their tariffs are set by local governments and generally kept low, starving the companies of cash.

As a result, they have historically struggled not just to reinvest in new infrastructure, but even to pay Naftogaz and independent suppliers of heat.

District heating companies owed Naftogaz more than $1.5 billion as of the end of 2020, crimping the state-owned company’s ability to reinvest in more gas production and help end the nation’s import dependence.

In what may be a reflection of its new strategy toward district heating companies, Naftogaz has recently taken over management of several of them, giving the state-owned gas company more influence over their possible transition to biomass.

Shved said his company learned a tough lesson and will no longer develop any projects in a city where it cannot manage the local heating network and directly receive payments from households.

Heletuha of the Bioenergy Association said Ukraine needs to pass legislation to ensure fair competition in the district heating sector. He said district heating companies effectively operate as monopolies and can block access to the network to private firms seeking to supply heat at a cheaper price.

Tomliak said it can be tough for private companies seeking to invest in the district heating industry to raise cheap capital because of the regulatory risks involved, including the unpredictable outlook for heating prices.

Ukrteplo’s former wood chip-fired boiler in Slavutych is not operating this year despite the high price for natural gas.

However, Ukrteplo is building several wood chip-fired boilers now in Rivne, where it manages the city’s heating network. Shved said he expects the projects will cut natural gas consumption for central heating in the city by half.

For logistical reasons, the transition to biomass is not viable in some districts, particularly those in city centers, Shved and Tomlyak said.

There may not be enough warehouse space to store wood chips or sunflower plant waste, and the trucks needed to haul it could cause congestion, among other problems.

Shved said he considers a 50 percent substitution rate of biomass for natural gas feasible at most district heating companies, implying potential future savings of about 3 bcm a year, the equivalent of nearly one-third of Ukraine’s natural gas imports.

Biomethane Law

Development of wood chip-fired heating plants in Zhytomyr, Slavutych, and Rivne is not a coincidence. All are located in regions of Ukraine blessed with significant forest acreage.

Zhytomyr's biomass combined heat and power plant. Ukraine uses about 6 bcm of natural gas per year to supply high-rise apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, and religious organizations.
Zhytomyr's biomass combined heat and power plant. Ukraine uses about 6 bcm of natural gas per year to supply high-rise apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, and religious organizations.

Zhytomyr possesses the most forest resources of any region in Ukraine, making wood chip heating plants very economical compared to natural gas.

But Ukraine’s biofuel wealth really lies in its agricultural sector, experts said.

The nation’s agricultural sector has been prospering over the past two decades as investment pours into its fertile fields, creating ever more solid biomass.

Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflowers, whose waste can be both combusted for heat production or turned into biogas -- a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide -- for electricity production.

The country is also one of the largest producers of wheat.

Heletuha said he sees straw becoming the dominant biomass source in Ukraine in the coming years and forecasts biomass replacing another 5 bcm of natural gas consumption in Ukraine by 2030.

Zhytomyr is already warming two schools with straw, Sukhomlyn said.

The agriculture sector may also become a key source of biomethane, a renewable energy source almost identical to natural gas that is derived from removing the carbon dioxide from biogas.

Ukraine last month passed a law defining biomethane, opening the door for investors to finally begin producing and transporting it through the nation’s pipeline system.

Ukraine could realistically produce 5 to 6 bcm of biomethane in the next 15 years, with 1 bcm already possible by 2025, Tomlyak said.

The 2025 target would require as much as $2 billion in investment, but Tomlyak said the energy shock this year may serve as a catalyst to get the funds flowing.

Ukraine's Defense Minister Says He Made Request For New U.S. Military Assistance

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov (file photo)

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov has said he requested military assistance during his first trip to the United States in his new capacity amid growing concern of possible Russian aggression.

Speaking to journalists at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington on November 19, a day after he met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Reznikov said that Ukraine had "powerful" ground forces but needed to enhance its air and naval capacities to deter Russian threats.

Reznikov declined to name the weapons he is requesting from the United States, saying only that in order "to stop [Russian] aggression, we need to show the cost will be too high."

His trip to Washington, organized at the last minute, comes amid reports Russia has kept as many as 90,000 troops stationed near its border with Ukraine following the conclusion of military exercises, raising fears of another possible invasion.

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, capturing much of its naval fleet, and has been backing fighters in two of Ukraine's eastern provinces. The conflict, which continues to this day, has claimed at least 13,200 lives.

In the latest incident, Ukraine said on November 19 that one of its soldiers had been killed by Moscow-backed separatists in the east.

The United States has committed more than $2.5 billion in military aide to Ukraine since 2014, including anti-tank missiles. Total U.S. military assistance, including training, will be $400 million this year, the State Department has said.

Ukraine's military needs have shifted over the years in relation to Russia’s actions and now is primarily in air and sea capabilities, Reznikov said.

Delivering new U.S. weapons to Ukraine is likely to anger Russia, which has recently lashed out at Western assistance to the country.

Reznikov said he received a "very strong" commitment from Austin that the United States will be "shoulder to shoulder" with Ukraine.

During a joint press conference with Reznikov on November 18, Austin said the United States was "monitoring closely" Russia's military movements near the border with Ukraine and expressed "unwavering support" for the country.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Mark Milley spoke earlier in the day with his Ukrainian counterpart, Valeriy Zalushniy, Reznikov said.

"We are going to ensure this communication on a regular basis," the Ukrainian defense minister said.

Reznikov, a 55-year-old former lawyer and deputy prime minister, was confirmed as defense minister on November 4, replacing Andriy Taran.

U.S. Citizen Arrested In Ukraine On Suspicion Of Planning To Kill Cabinet Minister

Roman Leshchenko is Ukraine's minister for agrarian policies and food.

KYIV -- A U.S. citizen has been arrested in Ukraine for allegedly planning to kill the country's minister for agrarian policies and food, Roman Leshchenko, in August.

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy told reporters in Kyiv on November 18 that the suspect and his alleged accomplice, a Ukrainian woman, had been apprehended a day earlier.

According to Monastyrskiy, the main suspect, a U.S. citizen, whose identity has not been disclosed, is suspected of using the unidentified Ukrainian woman to find a hit man to kill Leshchenko, who allegedly had refused to pay back an unspecified amount of money he had owed the main suspect since 2018.

Monastyrskiy added that the suspects first ordered the contract killing of another alleged debtor and unknowingly contacted undercover police agents, who faked the killing and presented photos of it to the U.S. citizen and his alleged accomplice.

After that, Monastyrskiy said, the duo asked the undercover agents to kill Leshchenko.

Leshchenko said on November 18 that the situation stems from a 2017 "corporate conflict" when he led the State Registry of Property. He and his family were then provided security after they received threats from unknown persons.

Leshchenko took over the Ministry for Agrarian Policies and Food in December last year.

France, Germany Accuse Moscow Of Diplomatic Breach For Publishing Ukraine Correspondence

A Russia-backed separatist prepares ammunition in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.

France and Germany have accused Moscow of violating diplomatic protocol by publishing confidential correspondence related to efforts to resolve the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine.

"We consider this approach to be contrary to diplomatic rules and customs," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said on November 18.

Germany's Foreign Ministry issued a similar statement.

Moscow published its correspondence with the so-called Normandy Format group -- which includes Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany -- one day earlier in what the Russian Foreign Ministry said was an effort to show that Moscow's positions had been misrepresented.

After Paris accused Russia of refusing to participate in a ministerial-level meeting of the Normandy Format countries and denied that the group had failed to respond to Moscow's proposals regarding the Ukraine conflict, Moscow published 28 pages of confidential correspondence that it claimed showed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said in advance that he could not participate in the proposed November 11 meeting.

After Moscow published the documents, Kyiv accused Russia of trying to undermine the Normandy process.

One of the released documents was a November 4 letter from the German and French foreign ministers taking exception to Moscow's characterization of the war between Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv as an "internal Ukrainian conflict."

Legendre said the publication of the documents showed that Moscow was trying to obstruct the process by insisting on numerous preconditions that the other parties could not accept.

She called on Russia to return to the talks as soon as possible.

For his part, Lavrov said in Moscow that when the prospect of a ministerial meeting was discussed, the French and German sides "were making arrogant, not very appropriate, and not very ethical statements."

At least 13,200 people have been killed in fighting in parts of eastern Ukraine between the central government and separatist formations that have been provided military, political, and economic assistance by Moscow.

Russia denies any involvement in the conflict, which broke out in the spring of 2014, shortly after Russia forcibly annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea, despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

With reporting by Reuters and TASS

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Endorses Sanctions On 28 Russian Intelligence Officers

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has endorsed the imposition of sanctions on 28 members of Russia's intelligence and special services, as well as six other individuals alleged to be responsible for human rights abuses in Crimea.

The decree, signed by Zelenskiy on November 18, was placed on the presidential website.

The National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) imposed the sanctions in August, along with sanctions against 12 legal entities, including local television channels, news agencies, and online publications from Crimea.

The RNBO said at the time that all persons and entities affected by the sanctions were involved in what it called "an information war against Ukraine" and were active participants in "hybrid aggression."

Russia occupied Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by more than 100 countries.

Moscow also backs separatists in a war against government forces that has killed more than 13,200 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

NATO Deputy Chief Urges Russia To Agree To 'Honest' Dialogue To Defuse Tensions

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana (file photo)

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoana has called on Russian officials to establish a "solid, transparent, and honest dialogue" with the Western military alliance amid persistent high tensions between Moscow and the West over issues including its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing conflict in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

More recently, Russia has been accused of helping its ally, Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, orchestrate a border crisis with the European Union's eastern member states -- which the Kremlin denies.

Western countries have also expressed concerns over a Russian military buildup close to Ukraine's borders in recent weeks, while Moscow has been angered by stepped up naval visits to the Black Sea by NATO member states.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Geoana said that despite relations being at the lowest level since the end of the Cold War, NATO officials "are seeking and looking forward to continuing discussions with their Russian counterparts" on both the political and military levels.

"We stand ready to continuing and urging Russia to come back to the NATO-Russia Council," the main forum for dialogue between the two sides, he said.

"For the time being, Russia is turning down our invitations, but we hope that they realize the merit of having a solid, transparent, and honest dialogue with NATO."

Kremlin-backed separatists continue to control wide swaths of eastern Ukraine in a seven-year conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014. The war erupted after Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea in the Black Sea in March 2014.

Periodic buildups of Russian troops in the area have set off alarms in Kyiv and Western capitals. Earlier this month, Ukraine said up to 90,000 Russian troops remained near its border despite the end of military drills, triggering calls for Russia to be transparent about its intentions.

Geoana said he would not speculate about the reasons behind such "unusual activities" by the Russian military around Ukraine, but insisted that NATO was "vigilant" and "very firm in deterring and defending against any threat from any direction."

Last week, the Kremlin vowed to safeguard its borders in the face of actions by countries trying to "contain" Russia, including in the Black Sea region. Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also claimed that "the movement of our armed forces on our territory should not be a cause for concern."

But Geoana rejected Russian suggestions that NATO is a potential threat to the country as "just not true," saying, "Everything we do in the Black Sea or on the eastern flank of NATO is purely defensive and perfectly transparent."

Noting that NATO has three member states in the region -- Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey -- as well as two "very important partners" -- Ukraine and Georgia -- the NATO deputy chief said, "There's absolutely no surprise to anyone when we do air policing, when we do maritime presence in the Black Sea."

"And in the end, it was not NATO, we didn't occupy Crimea or invade eastern Ukraine, so everything we have done after 2014 was purely defensive, deterrence, and defense, as we should, but always being careful of not being provocative or giving a sense of misinterpretation."

Moscow has been working closely with its ally in Minsk amid a border crisis as thousands of third-country migrants the European Union accuses Lukashenka of "weaponizing" are trapped along Belarus's western borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The EU has accused Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the bloc's borders -- particularly on the Polish frontier -- to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed over a sweeping crackdown on the political opposition, civil society, and independent media since last year's disputed presidential election.

"This is something that is part of a new arsenal of hybrid tools that Belarus is using" against the NATO and EU member states, according to Geoana.

"And of course, knowing the close relationship and partnership between Belarus and the Russian Federation, we also know that there is, you know, a way in which this is not indifferent or unknown to Moscow."

U.S., U.K. Express Concern Over Russian Military Activity Near Ukraine

Russia held military exercises in Crimea in April.

The United States and United Kingdom once again expressed concern about a large buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine as concerns grow over the Kremlin’s endgame.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on November 17 that the Russian troop movements “certainly have our attention” and he urged Russia to be “more transparent” about its intentions.

Earlier in the day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned a panel of senior lawmakers that it would be a “tragic mistake” for the Kremlin to undertake “military adventurism.”

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said earlier this month that up to 90,000 Russian troops remained near its border to the north, despite the end of military drills. That has raised concern over possible Russian aggression against Ukraine and prompted the U.K. to announce that it would be sending 600 troops to the country.
Meanwhile, the United States has stepped up naval visits to the Black Sea, sparking Kremlin anger.

Russia has a history of aggression toward Ukraine. The Kremlin forcibly annexed its Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in two of its eastern provinces, triggering a conflict that continues to simmer to this day.

Separately, the United States and NATO member Turkey held a high-level defense group meeting at the Pentagon on November 16 to discuss a range of issues, including tensions in the Black Sea.

Turkey is one of three NATO members, along with Romania and Bulgaria, that borders the Black Sea.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov is expected in Washington later this week.

Cybersleuths Say Zelenskiy's Office Postponed Russian Mercenary Sting Operation After Cease-Fire Pact

Vasyl Burba, who led the military intelligence at the time and was overseeing the operation, said Zelenskiy's office pushed back the sting operation several days because of concerns that it would jeopardize the truce deal.

An alleged plot by Ukrainian intelligence agencies to capture almost three dozen Russian mercenaries fell apart after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office requested a postponement, according to an investigation by the open-source research group Bellingcat and the Russia-focused media outlet The Insider.

In a report issued on November 17 after a yearlong investigation, British-based Bellingcat and The Insider said they found that the country's military intelligence service had planned to force a plane carrying 33 Russian mercenaries from Minsk to Istanbul on July 25, 2020, to land in Ukraine under false pretenses.

The planned forced landing was to have been the final stage of an elaborate sting operation carried out by the military intelligence service with support from the counterintelligence department of the domestic intelligence agency, the SBU, according to the report. The goal, it said, was to lure and arrest Russian mercenaries who previously fought on the side of Russia-backed anti-government forces in the war in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.

However, the report said, just days before the plane was to take off from Belarus, Zelenskiy agreed to a cease-fire in the conflict in the Donbas effective on July 27, 2020.

According to the report, Vasyl Burba, who led the military intelligence at the time and was overseeing the operation, said Zelenskiy's office pushed back the sting operation several days because of concerns that it would jeopardize the truce deal.

The report quotes Burba as saying he met with Zelenskiy's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, just days before the operation to give a final update. Burba said Yermak proposed postponing the sting operation.

"According to Burba, the position of the Office of the President was that if the sting operation would continue as planned and culminate in detentions on 25 July, the cease-fire would be dead before it started," the report by Bellingcat and The Insider said.

Several operatives told Bellingcat that Burba called them immediately after the meeting with Yermak. However, Bellingcat said it could not independently verify Burba's alleged conversation with Yermak, and Zelenskiy's office did not provide comments for this investigation, despite multiple requests.

Zelenskiy, Yermak, and the intelligence agencies have in the past denied that Ukrainian authorities hatched any such plan, which might have caused an international uproar had it been carried out, in part because diverting a plane on false pretenses is illegal.

In September 2020, Yermak called accounts of an alleged Ukrainian operation a "detective story" whose authors took "a few facts from reality" and added a heavy dose of "fiction." In comments in June 2021, Zelenskiy suggested that Ukraine may have been drawn into a plot initiated by another country.

In a statement to RFE/RL on November 17 following publication of the report, the Zelenskiy administration said "it is the policy of the President's Office and the Ukrainian government not to comment on the existence or nonexistence of any intelligence operations."

The mercenaries arrived in Belarus on July 25 and were arrested by the Belarusian KGB at their hotel on the outskirts of Minsk on July 29. Belarus accused them of seeking to destabilize the country ahead of an August 9 presidential election in which authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka faced an unprecedented challenge from the pro-democracy opposition. They were later sent back to Russia.

The report by Bellingcat and The Insider is based on "interviews with individuals involved with the operation, a massive amount of documentary evidence…and open-source verification of claims," Bellingcat said. The report said that many of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns or because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The report directly contradicted one of the findings announced a day earlier by a Ukrainian parliamentary committee that was set up to investigate the matter.

The head of the parliamentary committee, Maryana Bezuhla, told journalists on November 15 that there was no evidence that Zelenskiy had postponed the operation. The committee was unable to determine who or what caused the postponement.

Bezuhla is a member of Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party, which holds a majority in parliament.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

According to the report, the military intelligence agency lured the mercenaries through a fake website mimicking a disbanded Russian paramilitary organization.

The Ukrainian operatives posted fake job ads seeking Russians with military backgrounds and requesting they send resumes with details of their prior experience.

More than 200 people applied, many detailing their service in eastern Ukraine, creating a "gold mine" of information for Ukraine's intelligence, the report said.

It said that military intelligence worked with the domestic intelligence agency to pick out those applicants most wanted for their wartime activities in eastern Ukraine, narrowing it down to slightly less than three dozen.

The saga became known in Ukraine and elsewhere as Vagnergate -- a reference to Vagner, a prominent private Russian military company whose employees have fought in the Donbas war and other conflicts involving Russia.

According to the report by Bellingcat and The Insider, most of the men targeted in the operation "had at some point served as mercenaries" for Vagner in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, or the Central African Republic (CAR).

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Kyiv Blasts Putin Decree On Trade With Separatists In Eastern Ukraine

Goods for sale in Donetsk (file photo)

Kyiv has assailed Moscow over a presidential decree allowing goods produced in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists to be sold more easily in Russia, calling it "gross interference" in the country's internal affairs and a violation of international law.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on November 16 that Russian President Vladimir Putin's decree violated Russia's commitments under the Minsk cease-fire deals aimed at putting an end to an ongoing seven-year conflict in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

The decree, which was posted on Russia’s official portal of legal information on November 15 amid Western concerns over Russian military activities in and around Ukraine, "clearly demonstrates Russia's purposeful policy to pull the temporarily occupied territories of our state to its economic, political, electoral, and information space," the statement reads.

The Ukrainian ministry said it had sent a relevant "note of protest" to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

In his decree, Putin ordered the government to lift curbs on exports and imports of goods between Russia and parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are held by the separatists.

The Kremlin justified the move by citing the repercussions of the economic blockade between the separatist-held areas and the rest of Ukraine, as well as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

A separatist representative in Luhansk, Rodion Miroshnik, hailed the move as a "serious step toward integration with Russia," while Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin spoke of an "important step in support."

Since 2019, residents of the breakaway areas have been able to obtain Russian passports through a simplified procedure, sparking harsh criticism from Kyiv and Western governments which accused Moscow of trying to further destabilize the situation in Ukraine's east.

With reporting by dpa

Ukrainian Ombudswoman Not Allowed To See Saakashvili

Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukrainian ombudswoman, in Georgia (file photo)

TBILISI -- Ukraine's ombudswoman has been barred from seeing hunger striking former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is a Ukrainian citizen, in a prison hospital in Georgia.

Georgian Justice Minister Rati Bregadze said on November 16 that Lyudmyla Denisova cannot visit Saakashvili, as "Georgian law does not envision" such a visit.

"There is no need for that and we do not have such an obligation," Bregadze said, adding that Saakashvili’s health condition is satisfactory and there is no reason for concern.

Bregadze also criticized Denisova for an earlier statement she made after meeting with Saakashvili earlier last month. In the comments, she quoted Saakashvili as saying that he was being denied medical assistance.

"The last time Mrs. Denisova met [with Saakashvili], she made a one-sided statement. She did not even ask us if the information was true," Bregadze said.

After learning of the denial of her visit on November 16, Denisova said she will now try to meet with the administration and physicians of the penitentiary hospital to get concrete information on Saakashvili's health.

"At this point, we have controversial information regarding Saakashvili's health and the possible ways to assist him in case his health state dramatically worsens," Denisova told journalists, adding that Bregadze had not responded to her request to meet with him personally.

Denisova arrived in Tbilisi a day earlier saying that Saakashvili told her personally that his state of health had worsened.

Georgian authorities had already denied several European politicians to visit Saakashvili.

On November 15, Georgia's Special Penitentiary Service (SPS) also barred Saakashvili from attending his own trial on embezzlement charges, saying it would create a security risk and worsen the former president's health as he is in the seventh week of a hunger strike.

Last week, Saakashvili was similarly not allowed to be present at a hearing in a different court case against him, this one over his role in the violent dispersal of opposition protesters in November 2007.

Saakashvili was arrested on October 1 for allegedly illegally entering Georgia when he returned after an eight-year absence.

Saakashvili, who was president from 2004 to 2013, left the country shortly after the presidential election of 2013 and was convicted in absentia in 2018 for abuse of power and seeking to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition member of parliament.

Saakashvili has said all of the charges against him are politically motivated. His supporters have been protesting his arrest since early October. They have been demanding the politician's transfer to a civilian medical clinic as his health fails due to the hunger strike.

The government has refused to transfer Saakashvili, instead placing him in a prison hospital.

Ukraine Offers Cash Incentive To Get COVID-19 Vaccination

Only 28 percent of Ukrainians are fully vaccinated.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that people will be offered a cash incentive to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Everyone who has had two doses will be able to receive 1,000 hryvnias," or around $37, Zelenskiy said in a video message on November 15.

The cash payments are a significant sum for the citizens of one of Europe's poorest countries, where the per capita income is around $3,700.

"With these funds, you can buy a season ticket to a gym or fitness club, visit a cinema, theater, museum, concert hall or exhibition center, or buy tickets for travel within the country," Zelenskiy said.

The government plans to allocate around $225 million for the scheme which will be launched on December 19.

Ukraine is currently experiencing its worst wave of the pandemic, prompting authorities to impose a raft of restrictions in several cities, including the capital Kyiv.

Health officials attribute the spike in cases and deaths to low vaccination rates, with just 28 percent of the population having received two vaccine doses.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ukraine has recorded 3.2 million cases and more than 77,000 deaths.

NATO Chief, Alliance Heavyweights Warn Russia Over Troop Buildup Near Ukraine

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to be “transparent” about its military activities amid what he called a "large and unusual concentration” of Russian forces close to Ukraine's borders in recent weeks.

The United States and several European members of the alliance have raised alarm bells over Russian military activities near Ukraine, where Kremlin-backed separatists control swaths of territory in an ongoing seven-year conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

"Any further provocation or aggressive actions by Russia would be of serious concern," Stoltenberg told a joint news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels on November 15.

While in Brussels, Kuleba also met with French and German foreign ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maas, who also warned Russia against harming Ukraine's territorial integrity.

"Any new attempt to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have serious consequences," Le Drian and Maas said in a joint statement after the talks, reaffirming that "Germany and France are steadfast in their unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine" and urging Russia to "adopt a posture of restraint."

In London, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on November 15 that Britain, too, remains "unwavering" in its support for Ukraine's territorial integrity.

"We are seeing a concerning situation at that border. We remain in unwavering support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and will continue to support them in the face of Russian hostility," the spokesman told reporters.

On November , U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed "reports of concerning Russian military activity in and near Ukraine" with his French counterpart, according to the State Department.

Spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on November 14 that Blinken and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also addressed their countries' "ironclad commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Last week, Blinken warned Russia against making another "serious mistake" on Ukraine as Washington sought information about an alleged Russian troop movement near the border that the Pentagon called "unusual in its size and scope."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed Western suggestions that Moscow might be considering offensive military action and accused Washington of aggressive moves in the Black Sea, where Ukraine and the United States have held major military drills in recent months.

Stoltenberg said on November 15 such exercises in the Black Sea region are "defensive and transparent."

On November 15, Putin signed a decree allowing goods produced in eastern Ukraine to be sold more easily in Russia.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

Ukraine Plans To Speed Construction Of Berdyansk Base Amid Tensions With Russia

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov (right) during a trip to Berdyansk on November 13.

Ukraine’s new defense minister says the country will speed construction of a naval base at the port of Berdyansk amid tense relations with Russia in the unstable region.

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on November 13 following a visit to Berdyansk that the move is designed to prevent what Ukraine calls attempts by Moscow to take control of the crucial Sea of Azov.

The sea borders along the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia illegally seized from Ukraine in 2014.

“Strengthening our capabilities in this direction and the development of the navy in general is one of the priorities,” said Reznikov, who toured the region along with Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff General Valery Zaluzhny.

"The corresponding instructions will be given to accelerate the construction of the naval base," Reznikov said in statement released by the Defense Ministry.

The comments come as Kyiv and Western powers, including the United States, raised alarm bells over Russian activities near Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists control swaths of territory in an ongoing seven-year conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia against making another "serious mistake" on Ukraine as Washington sought information about an alleged Russian troop movement near the border that the Pentagon called "unusual in its size and scope."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed Western suggestions Moscow might be considering offensive military action and accused Washington of aggressive moves in the Black Sea, where Ukraine and the United States have held major military drills in recent months.

Ukraine in 2018 said it planned to build a naval base in Berdyansk after losing its military bases on the Crimean Peninsula when Moscow seized the territory.

The creation of the base "will create conditions for repelling Russian aggression in that region," the Ukrainian government said at the time.

Reznikov said security risks had been heightened and threats to shipping had emerged because of Russian actions in the Azov and Black Seas.

"Following the occupation of Crimea and parts of [eastern Ukraine], Russia is trying to de facto occupy the Sea of Azov as well," Reznikov said.

Russia has denied that it wants to take control of the Sea of Azov, but it did not comment on Reznikov comments.

With reporting by Reuters and Unian

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