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White House Aide Says U.S. Not Seeking Immediate Ouster Of Syria's Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)

The United States won't insist on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's immediate ouster as it seeks a political settlement of the country's six-year civil war, President Donald Trump's counterterrorism adviser said on July 20.

"I don't think it's important for us to say Assad must go first," Tom Bossert said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. "The U.S. would still like to see Assad go at some point. That would be our desired outcome."

The White House's position represents a significant change from Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, who insisted Assad must go as part of any political settlement in Syria.

Other Western powers have also softened their opposition to Assad recently, most notably France under recently elected President Emmanuel Macron, who like the White House says that Assad's stepping down is not a precondition for reaching a peace agreement in Syria.

Bossert said there needs to be a political outcome in Syria, not a military solution, and the Trump administration still believes that Assad staying in control does not offer the best hope for a peaceful Syria.

Whether Assad's leaving "comes first or second or soon thereafter, it would be a nice outcome," he said.

Bossert spoke following news reports that Trump had decided to halt the CIA's covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels battling the Assad government.

Both changes in the U.S. position are sure to please Russia, which has long pushed the United States to stop arming anti-Assad rebels and has insisted that Assad should be able to run for reelection and stay in power if he's elected again during a negotiated political transition in Syria.

The phasing out of the secret weapons program was reported by The Washington Post on July 19. Officials told the newspaper that ending the operation reflects Trump's interest in finding ways to work with Russia.

The program was begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to relinquish power.

Bossert said the Trump policy of working with Russia in Syria, starting off by forging a cease-fire agreement in the southwestern part of the country, is paying off.

"What clearly this president has done has obtained some cease-fire that's durable through some cooperation with the Russians despite all the domestic political brouhaha...I think he has demonstrated a desire at least to have safe havens so that we don't have a refugee and a migration problem that plagues Europe and eventually the United States in a way that we can't maintain security control of," he said.

With reporting by AP, Politico, and Daily Caller

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Blinken Accuses Russia Of Blocking Exports Of Ukrainian Grain, Worsening World Food Crisis

An aerial view shows a tractor spreading fertilizer on a wheat field near the village of Yakovlivka, outside Kharkiv, after it was hit by a Russian aerial bombardment on April 5.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of using food as a weapon in its war against Ukraine by blocking ports used to ship grain and other commodities.

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"The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not -- to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people," Blinken said in an address on May 19 to the UN Security Council.

"As a result of the Russian government's actions, some 20 million tons of grain sit unused in Ukrainian silos," he said. As global food supplies dwindle, prices skyrocket, causing more people around the world to experience food insecurity, he added.

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil.

Blinken appealed to Russia to stop blockading the ports so that food produced in Ukraine can begin flowing again.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said it was "absolutely false" that Russia was to blame for a crisis that he claimed has been ongoing for several years.

He accused Ukraine of refusing to cooperate with shipping companies to free up dozens of foreign freighters that are blocked in ports and said Ukraine has placed mines along the Black Sea coast.

Nebenzia also blamed Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for slowing Russian exports of food and fertilizer.

Blinken rejected Russian claims that sanctions were to blame for the food crisis.

"Sanctions imposed by the United States and many other countries deliberately include carve-outs for food, for fertilizer, and seeds from Russia," he said. "The decision to weaponize food is Moscow's and Moscow's alone."

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

U.S. Senate Gives Final Congressional Approval To $40 Billion Aid Package For Ukraine

“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (file photo) 

The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion package of military and economic aid for Ukraine.

The 86-11 vote gave final congressional approval to the package, which is expected to be quickly signed by President Joe Biden, who proposed the spending package just a few weeks ago.

“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) backed the measure, saying Ukraine’s defeat would jeopardize America’s European trading partners, increase U.S. security costs there, and embolden autocrats in China and elsewhere to grab territory in their regions.

“The most expensive and painful thing America could possibly do in the long run would be to stop investing in sovereignty, stability, and deterrence before it’s too late,” McConnell said.

The House of Representatives approved the Ukraine bill 368-57 last week.

When Biden signs the bill into law, it will bring the total amount of U.S. aid approved for Ukraine to well over $50 billion since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

Schumer said on May 18 that he was not confident it would be the final measure to help Ukraine.

“They’re doing the fighting. They’re the ones getting killed. They’re the ones struggling and suffering. The least we can do is give them the weaponry they need,” he said.

The legislation contains around $24 billion for weapons, equipment, and military financing for Ukraine and to cover the cost of restoring U.S. weapons stocks sent to the region.

The rest includes economic aid to keep Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government functioning, food programs for countries that rely on Ukraine’s crop production, refugee assistance, and funds for Kyiv to investigate Russian war crimes.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Ukrainian Lawmakers Outline Resolution Recognizing Putin As A 'War Criminal'

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the Victory Day military parade in Red Square in central Moscow on May 9.

Ukrainian lawmakers have outlined a resolution that would designate Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal over for his "aggressive" moves against the country, including launching an unprovoked invasion in February.

The draft resolution was prepared by parliamentary groups and committees and registered at the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) on May 19.

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The authors of the resolution linked Putin directly to "the aggressive war against Ukraine," including the ongoing invasion that he started on February 24, and the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014.

The draft resolution, which now awaits the setting of a date for debate in parliament, says Putin is directly responsible for the aggression "in which millions of Ukrainians suffered damage to their health, in many cases death, lost movable and immovable property, and were forced to abandon their homes."

The resolution also mentions Putin’s open statements and activities "aimed at liquidating Ukraine's national culture, identity, and statehood."

"The goal of the resolution is to publicly confirm the crimes committed by the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, against mankind’s security and international law, and call on international institutions to investigate mentioned illegal acts and bringing Putin to account," the document says.

Before launching the invasion, which he calls a "special military operation," Putin explicitly denied that Ukraine had ever had “real statehood” and said the country was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, [and] spiritual space.”

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says almost 3,800 civilians have been killed in the 12 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. The government in Kyiv has said that about 3,000 of the country's soldiers have died in the fighting, though the United States estimates the number to be at least double that.

Ukraine has accused Russia of committing atrocities during its unprovoked invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians and claims that evidence of atrocities presented by Ukraine was staged.

Earlier on May 19, prosecutors in Kyiv asked a court for a life sentence for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.

Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, who went on trial on May 18, has already pleaded guilty in the shooting death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov, who was shot while riding his bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.

McDonald's Reaches Agreement To Sell Russian Operations To Local Licensee

McDonald's had operated in Russia for more than 30 years.

McDonald's says it has signed a deal to sell its business in Russia to a local licensee, Aleksandr Govor, that will give him the global fast-food giant's entire restaurant portfolio in the country and allow him to operate the restaurants under a new brand.

McDonald's, which operated in Russia for more than 30 years, said in a statement on May 19 that agreement remains subject to certain conditions, including regulatory approval, with closing expected to occur "in the coming weeks."

"The sale and purchase agreement provides for employees to be retained for at least two years, on equivalent terms. The buyer has also agreed to fund the salaries of corporate employees who work in 45 regions of the country until closing, as well as fund existing liabilities to suppliers, landlords, and utilities," the statement added.

The sale agreement comes three days after McDonald's announced it would exit the Russian market and had initiated a process to sell its Russian business.

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

Since 2015, Govor has served as a McDonald's licensee and has operated 25 restaurants in Siberia.

The statement did not give any details on Govor's plans for the operations.

Popular Russian Rocker Charged Over Critical Statement About War In Ukraine

"The motherland is not the president's ass that one must lather and kiss all the time," rock singer Yuri Shevchuk said. (file photo)

UFA, Russia -- Yury Shevchuk, leader and frontman of DDT, one of Russia's most popular rock groups, has been charged with an administrative misdemeanor over a statement he made during a concert about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Producer Radmir Usayev said in a post on Instagram on May 19 that police approached Shevchuk after a concert in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, a day earlier and "first wanted to detain him," but then just informed the popular rock musician that he was being charged with an unspecified misdemeanor.

According Usayev, the police officers "talked" to Shevchuk about "the concert, its goals and statements made by Shevchuk about the war and the motherland."

Video of Shevchuk talking about the war at the concert has since gone viral on social media.

"The motherland is not the president's ass that one must lather and kiss all the time. The motherland is a beggar, an old woman that sells potatoes at the railway station. That is what motherland is," Shevchuk said at the concert.

His words were cheered by the crowd.

Last month, authorities in the Siberian city of Tyumen canceled a DDT concert in the city after Shevchuk refused to perform on a stage decorated with a huge "Z" -- a sign of support of Russia's war against Ukraine.

Ukrainian Prosecutors Seek Life In Prison For Russian Soldier Accused Of War Crime

Vadim Shishimarin in a Kyiv courtroom.

Prosecutors in Ukraine are seeking life in prison for the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine.

Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, who went on trial on May 18, pleaded guilty in the shooting death of a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, Oleksandr Shelypov, who was shot while riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy.

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The Ukrainian website Hraty, which is covering the high-profile trial online, reported on May 19 that prosecutors asked the court to sentence Shishimarin to life in prison. The trial was then adjourned until May 20.

The trial is being held at the Solomyanka district court in Kyiv and is open to the public.

The victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelypova, testified on May 19 that she wants life in prison for the defendant but would agree to an exchange for Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia troops.

Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, said that he understands that it is impossible for Shelypova to forgive him, but still said he is sorry.

The 21-year-old Shishimarin said he did not want to kill Shelypov but was ordered to shoot him to prevent him from reporting on the Russians' presence. He said he fired several shots through an open car window, hitting the civilian in the head.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier that Russia has no information about the trial, adding that Russia's ability to provide assistance is limited due to the absence of its diplomatic mission.

The killing occurred just days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

WATCH: The widow of a Ukrainian civilian killed by the first Russian soldier on trial for war crimes in Ukraine said he could have "missed" her husband instead of carrying out orders. Kateryna Shelipova's husband, Oleksandr, was fatally shot in the early days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Russian soldier accused of killing Shelipov pleaded guilty in a Kyiv court on May 18.

Widow Of Murdered Ukrainian Civilian Reacts To Russian Soldier's Guilty Plea
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Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes." She added that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and that those named were just the first.

She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha.

The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near Kyiv revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.

On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.

The UNHRC's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.

With reporting by Hraty

Kazakh Political Prisoner Released On Changed Sentence Amid Rights Outcry

Kazakh civil right activist Asqar Qaiyrbek

PETROPAVL, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh civil right activist Asqar Qaiyrbek has been released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of his prison term with a parole-like penalty amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Qaiyrbek, recognized by Kazakh human rights organizations as a political prisoner, left the ES-164/3 penal colony in the northern city of Petropavl early in the morning on May 19, just over two weeks after the Petropavl City Court ruled the 45-year-old activist's 26-month prison term would be changed unless prosecutors appealed the decision.

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Since no appeal was filed, the decision became official on May 18, paving the way for Qaiyrbek to leave the prison.

Qaiyrbek was arrested in September 2020 and sentenced in June last year on extremism charges stemming from his support for the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party. The two groups are labeled as extremist and banned in Kazakhstan.

He has rejected the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

On April 25, rights defenders said Qaiyrbek was severely beaten by prison guards. Kazakhstan’s Penitentiary Service has confirmed Qaiyrbek sustained bruises and injuries but did not give any other details or say how the injuries occurred.

Qaiyrbek is the fourth political prisoner in Kazakhstan imprisoned for supporting DVK and the Koshe party to be released in recent weeks after their prison terms were replaced with parole-like sentences amid protests by Kazakh rights defenders and opposition activists.

Many activists across the Central Asian nation have been handed prison terms or parole-like restricted freedom sentences in recent years for their involvement in the activities of DVK and the Koshe party and for taking part in the rallies organized by the two groups.

DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.

The Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

Biden Hails 'Momentous' Applications Of Sweden, Finland To Join NATO

U.S. President Joe Biden (center), accompanied by Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (right) and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 19.

U.S. President Joe Biden expressed strong support for the applications of Sweden and Finland to join NATO as he met with the leaders of the two countries at the White House, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”

Biden said he was proud to welcome Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on May 19 to mark the "momentous" applications of the formerly neutral countries. He offered “the strong support of the United States” for their applications “to join the strongest most powerful defensive alliance in the history of the world."

Biden added that his administration on May 19 would submit reports on the two countries' NATO accession to the U.S. Congress, which must approve the expansion of the alliance.

“They meet every NATO requirement and then some," he said, and “having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance.”

Prior to formally submitting their bids on May 18, Sweden and Finland said the war in Ukraine prompted the move to reverse their long-standing neutrality and apply for membership in NATO, whose expansion was cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a justification for Russia's invasion.

“New members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation," Biden said in a reference to Putin's demand that the alliance stop expanding. "It never has been.”

While the processing of the two countries' applications is expected to move quickly, it still must overcome an obstacle in Turkey's opposition.

Niinisto said Finland was open to discussing Turkey's concerns, adding that the country is ready to commit to Ankara's security.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he is against their accession because of what he called their support for "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

On May 19, Erdogan reiterated his opposition, saying Turkey was "determined" to block Sweden's and Finland's bids to join NATO, calling Sweden in particular a "complete terror haven."

However, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington is "confident" that Turkey's concerns can be overcome.

"We're confident that at the end of the day Finland and Sweden" will enter NATO and "that Turkey's concerns can be addressed," Sullivan said on May 18.

The two Nordic countries' choice to join NATO marks a watershed in the current European security architecture.

Helsinki chose to remain neutral in the postwar era following two wars with the Soviet Union that saw Finland lose one-tenth of its territory, while Sweden has been traditionally nonaligned for the past two centuries.

Both Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union, and the latter shares a 1,340-kilometer-long of border with Russia.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa

U.S. Condemns Belarusian Move To Introduce Death Penalty For 'Terrorists'

Police detain a man during an opposition march in Minsk in November 2020.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka's move to introduce the death penalty for those convicted of "terrorism," a charge his regime often uses against its critics and dissidents.

Belarusian state-controlled media reported that Lukashenka on May 18 signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allows for the usage of capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."

Blinken said in a statement issued hours later that the move targeted pro-democracy activists and opponents of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

"The regime has levied politically motivated charges of 'extremism' and 'terrorism' against many of the more than 1,100 political prisoners and used such labels to detain tens of thousands more," Blinken said in the statement.

"These actions are those of an authoritarian leader desperate to cling to power through fear and intimidation," he added.

Belarus, which allowed Russia to use its territory to stage its attack on Ukraine, is the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.

Blinken said that ahead of the May 21 commemoration of the Day of Political Prisoners in Belarus, Washington was reiterating its call for the "unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to the regime's violence against its own citizens, and a national dialogue inclusive of civil society and the democratic movement, leading to free and fair elections under international observation."

For years, the UN and the European Union have urged Belarus to join other countries in declaring a moratorium on capital punishment.

According to rights organizations, more than 400 people have been sentenced to death in Belarus since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With reporting by BelTA

Amnesty Says Swedish-Iranian 'Hostage' At Risk Of Retaliatory Execution By Tehran

Amnesty International protesters demonstrate against the death penalty for Ahmadreza Djalali in front of the Piedmont Regional Council in Turin, Italy, in Decembember 2020.

Amnesty International says Iran is threatening a Swedish-Iranian doctor with imminent execution in order to force Belgium and Sweden to release two imprisoned former Iranian officials and to deter Western countries from future prosecutions of other Iranian officials.

Ahmedreza Djalali, a medical doctor and lecturer at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was arrested in Iran in 2016 during an academic visit. He specializes in disaster relief and has taught at European universities. Rights groups have condemned his detention.

He was accused of providing information to Israel to help it assassinate several senior nuclear scientists.

Iran has threatened to execute him by May 21.

Amnesty and other groups say the threat to execute Djalali is tied to the current trial in Stockholm of Hamid Nouri, a former prison official, who is accused of having a role in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.

Amnesty also said that Iran wants the release of Asadollah Asadi, a former Iranian diplomat who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Belgium for his role in a thwarted 2018 bomb attack in France.

"The Iranian authorities are using Ahmadreza Djalali's life as a pawn in a cruel political game, escalating their threats to execute him in retaliation for their demands going unmet," Amnesty International's Diana Eltahawy said in a statement issued on May 19.

"The authorities are attempting to pervert the course of justice in Sweden and Belgium, and should be investigated for the crime of hostage taking," Eltahawy said.

"The Iranian authorities must halt any plans to execute Ahmadreza Djalali, release him immediately and offer reparations for the harm they have caused him."

Tehran has denied the cases are linked.

Russia Issues Additional Arrest Warrants For Four Navalny Associates

In a video released in April 2021, Ivan Zhdanov (left) and Leonid Volkov address supporters of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has issued additional arrest warrants for several close associates of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, this time on charges of creating an extremist group.

The Basmanny district court said on May 19 that it had ruled in recent days during separate hearings that the former director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Ivan Zhdanov, former FBK lawyers Lyubov Sobol and Vyacheslav Gimadi, and the former coordinator of Navalny's regional network, Leonid Volkov, should be arrested and placed in pretrial detention for at least two months.

Russia's Criminal Code envisages a penalty of up to 12 years in prison for persons found guilty of such charges.

There were already arrest warrants issued for the four activists, who are currently living outside of Russia, on different charges that they and their supporters have also called politically motivated.

Separately on May 19, police in the largest city in Siberia, Novosibirsk, searched the homes of two former members of Navalny's team, Yelena Noskovets, who left Russia last year, and Polina Golobkova. Police said the searches were linked to "a case launched into the activities of an extremist group."

Police in Novosibirsk also searched the homes of two local independent lawmakers, Anton Kartavin and Sergei Boiko, who used to be close to Navalny's groups. Boiko said on Telegram that he was currently outside of Russia.

The day before, police in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk broke into and searched the apartment of another former associate of Navalny, Natalya Peterimova, who fled Russia earlier fearing for her safety.

FBK and other groups associated with Navalny, as well as his political movement, were declared "extremist organizations" by Russian authorities in June 2021 and disbanded.

Several of the Kremlin critic's associates were subsequently charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.

Germany Says 'No Shortcuts' For Ukraine On EU Path, Prompting Criticism From Kyiv

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron visit the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin as it's illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag on May 9.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says Ukraine's bid to join the European Union cannot be fast-tracked despite Russia's invasion, a statement Kyiv said amounted to "second-class" treatment.

"There are no shortcuts on the way to the EU," Scholz told the Bundestag -- Germany's lower house of parliament -- on May 19, adding that an exception for Ukraine would be unfair to Western Balkan countries also seeking membership.

"The accession process is not a matter of a few months or years," Scholz said.

Scholz called for other ways to help Ukraine in the short term, saying the priority was to "concentrate on supporting Ukraine quickly and pragmatically."

French President Emmanuel Macron has also said it will take "decades" for a candidate like Ukraine to join the EU, and suggested establishing a broader political organization beyond the bloc that could even include Britain.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted to Scholz's statement by criticizing the "second-class treatment" of Kyiv by some EU countries that he said "hurt feelings of Ukrainians."

"Strategic ambiguity on Ukraine's European perspective practiced by some EU capitals in the past years has failed and must end," he said on Twitter.

This had "only emboldened" Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added.

Scholz said on May 19 that he would be attending the EU summit at the end of the month "with the clear message that the Western Balkans belong in the EU.

"For years, they have been undertaking intensive reforms and preparing for accession," Scholz said.

"It is not only a question of our credibility that we keep our promises to them. Today more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest," he said.

The 27-member bloc's leaders at a summit in Slovenia in October 2021 stopped short of offering a concrete timetable for membership to the six Western Balkans candidates, reiterating only the bloc's "commitment to the enlargement process."

The EU statement was met with disappointment by Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo.

Financial Lifeline

Meanwhile, finance ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies have begun a meeting in Germany as they look to shore up funding for Ukraine.

"I'm quite optimistic that we will be able at this G7 meeting to raise funding which allows Ukraine to defend itself over the next months," German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said at the opening of the meeting just outside of Bonn.

Since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, Ukraine has seen its economy decimated and millions displaced from their homes.

Kyiv, which estimated its running a $5 billion monthly budget deficit, has looked to the West for help finance its government and the war effort, and Linder said a "double-digit, billion-euro" figure was needed to assure Ukraine's "liquidity."

The meeting comes a day after the U.S. Senate approved an almost $40 billion package of military and financial aid for Ukraine, while the European Union has proposed an increase in aid for Kyiv of around $10 billion.

The G7 consists of Germany, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Residents Of Restive Tajik Region Say Death Toll From Clashes Higher Than Reported

Demonstrators demand the resignation of the regional governor and the mayor for their inaction after the death of a kidnapping suspect in police custody in November 2021.

DUSHANBE -- Residents of Tajikistan's restive region of Gorno-Badakhshan, where protesters have clashed with police in recent days, say the death toll from the violence is more than double the one given by officials.

Residents of the Rushon district told RFE/RL on May 19 that the bodies of 21 protesters killed during the clashes the day before had been turned over to their families for burial.

That figure contrasts with a May 18 statement from the Interior Ministry, which said that in all, nine people, including a police officer were killed and at least 25 were wounded during what it called an "counterterrorist operation" in the region.

More than 70 local residents have been detained, authorities said.

The protests were initially sparked several days ago by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by the regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of the regional capital, Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16.

Earlier on May 19, the diplomatic missions of the European Union, the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement expressing 'deep concern about the unrest and calling on all parties to "de-escalate, exercise restraint, and refrain from excessive use of force and incitement to violence."

The Interior Ministry said on May 18 that the situation in the region was now "stable" and that public transportation and other social institutions had resumed operations. RFE/RL correspondents, however, reported from the region that schools and state entities in region remained closed.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded the Tajik government "strictly observe its obligations to respect and protect people’s rights to life, and freedom of assembly and the media in any military or law enforcement operations in Tajikistan’s autonomous region."

"The authorities should provide a platform for constructive dialogue with protesters, refrain from excessive use of force, and ensure that any detainees are guaranteed full due process," HRW Central Asia researcher Syinat Sultanalieva said in a statement on May 18.

Tajikistan's leading independent media outlet, Asia Plus, announced on May 17 that it would no longer cover the events in Gorno-Badakhshan, apparently fearing possible repercussions.

The announcement came the same day that four RFE/RL journalists -- two from its Tajik language Service (known as Radio Ozodi) and two from Current Time -- were attacked by unknown assailants after they interviewed civil rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamatshoeva, who was accused by Tajik authorities of organizing the protests.

Mamatshoeva was arrested on May 18.

The situation in the restive region has been tense since November 2021, when security forces fatally wounded Gulbiddin Ziyobekov, a local man wanted on charges of kidnapping. Locals rallied at the time to demand a probe into Ziyobekov's death.

The protesters in Gorno-Badakhshan have insisted their actions are peaceful and that they have a right to peaceful demonstrations. Opposition groups based abroad have called on Tajik authorities to stop what they called the "persecution of peaceful demonstrators" in the region.

Protests are rare in the tightly controlled country of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

Tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, was home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict.

While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

UN Chief Urges Russia To Allow Exports Of Ukrainian Grain Through Black Sea Ports

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on Russia to allow the secure export of grain through Ukrainian ports.

The ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and others have been cut off by Russian warships in the Black Sea, so the grain can only travel on congested land routes that are far less efficient.

Speaking on May 18 at a major United Nations summit in New York on worldwide food insecurity, Guterres called on Russia to free up exports of Ukrainian grain.

"Let's be clear: there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine's food production," he said.

He added that alternative transportation routes can be explored "even if we know that by itself, this will not be enough to solve the problem."

Before Russia's invasion of its neighbor in February, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tons of agricultural produce per month through its ports -- 12 percent of the planet's wheat, 15 percent of its corn, and half of its sunflower oil.

The meeting, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was held to address a growing global food crisis.

Guterres said the war in Ukraine had compounded global food insecurity, raising the number of severely food-insecure people in the world from 135 million in 2019 to 276 million today.

In addition, more than half a million people are living in famine conditions, an increase of more than 500 percent since 2016, Guterres added.

"Now the war in Ukraine is amplifying and accelerating all these factors: climate change, COVID-19, and inequality," he said.

"It threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger, and famine, in a crisis that could last for years," Guterres said.

The war and international economic sanctions on Moscow have disrupted supplies of fertilizer, wheat, and other commodities from both Ukraine and Russia, pushing up prices for food and fuel, especially in developing countries.

The UN chief said that Russian food and fertilizers "must have full and unrestricted access to world markets."

With reporting by AFP

'It Is Hell There:' Zelenskiy Says Russian Bombardments Have Completely Destroyed Donbas Region

Ukrainian forces blow up a bridge connecting Severodonetsk and Lysychansk to Rubizhne in the Luhansk region in video released on May 18.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Russian forces have "completely destroyed" the Ukraine's Donbas region as it intensified its offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking in a video address late on May 19, Zelenskiy also accused Russian forces of attempting to kill as many Ukrainians and repeated his accusation that Russia is committing genocide.

"It is hell there -- and that is not an exaggeration," he said, adding that 12 people were killed in the "brutal and absolutely senseless bombardment" of Severodonetsk on May 19.

There are "constant strikes on the Odesa region, on the cities of central Ukraine. The Donbas is completely destroyed," he said.

Zelenskiy also said he spoke on May 19 with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about a range of issues, including financial aid to assist the shattered Ukrainian economy, agricultural exports, and "the evacuation of our heroes from Azovstal."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said earlier it had begun registering hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who left the Azovstal plant in Mariupol as prisoners of war (POWs).

"Over the last 2 days, we’ve registered hundreds of prisoners of war leaving the Azovstal plant in Mariupol. Registering POWs is an essential part of our work. It's critical to ensure they're accounted for & treated humanely and with dignity," the ICRC said on Twitter on May 19.

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The ICRC said in a statement that the registration process, which is ongoing, involves documenting personal details such as name, date of birth, and closest relatives.

This "allows the ICRC to track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families," the statement said.

It added that under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC is allowed to interview prisoners of war "without witnesses" and that visits with them should not be "unduly restricted."

The Russian Defense Ministry said on May 19 that the number of prisoners that had “surrendered" since May 16 was 1,730. All of them, including 80 who were injured, were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

It is not clear how many more soldiers remain holed up in the sprawling industrial compound, but the city of Mariupol is now under Russian control.

The Ukrainian military announced earlier this week that the men had been ordered to stand down to save their lives after weeks spent in the steelworks’ underground complex.

Kyiv has expressed hope that the fighters will be exchanged for Russian prisoners but pro-Russian authorities in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region suggested some of them could be put on trial.

The UN’s humanitarian chief on May 19 urged Russia and Ukraine to build on the cooperation that was necessary to end the siege and enable the evacuation.

Martin Griffiths said operations to initially evacuate civilians and later fighters points the way back toward broader peace negotiations.

"Those operations could not have happened had it not been for cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Ukraine authorities," he told reporters in Geneva. The cooperation “suggests there is something to build on."

Griffiths called for the resumption of the stalled talks hosted by Turkey, which invited negotiators from Kyiv and Moscow to meet for two rounds of talks in March.

On the battlefield, Serhiy Hayday, the governor of the Luhansk region, said the Russian military began shelling Severodonetsk, where he said 12 people were killed and more than 40 injured, with heavy weapons early on May 19.

Information on casualties was incomplete because it is impossible to access the area under fire. Hayday’s report could not be independently verified.

Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the main operations department of the Ukrainian military, told a briefing that a group of Russian troops was trying to conduct offensive operations along the entire line of contact in Donetsk and there were active hostilities in the areas of Severodonetsk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiiv, and Kurakhiv.

Gromov also reported that Ukrainian forces have liberated 23 settlements in the Kharkiv region since May 5.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said earlier that Russian forces had launched counterattacks around Kharkiv in an attempt to regain lost ground after being pushed back to the border.

In the area of the Velyka Komyshuvakha settlement, Russian forces suffered significant losses and were forced to withdraw to previously occupied positions, Ukraine's General Staff said on May 19.

The governor of the Russian region of Kursk said on May 19 that one person was killed and several wounded after what he said was a Ukrainian attack on a village near the border.

The British Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 19 that Lieutenant General Sergei Kisel, who commanded the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, has been suspended for his failure to capture Kharkiv.

The British intelligence report said that Kisel was just one of the senior Russian officers who have been fired in recent weeks for their poor performance during the early stages of the invasion of Ukraine.

Among other Russian commanders who have likely been dismissed is Vice Admiral Igor Osipov, who commanded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, following the sinking of the cruiser Moskva in April, British intelligence reported.

Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, likely remains in his post, the bulletin said, adding that it was unclear whether he retains President Vladimir Putin's confidence.

A culture of cover-ups and scapegoating is probably prevalent within the Russian military and security system, the British bulletin said, concluding that this could place further strain on Russia's centralized model of command and control and make it more difficult for Moscow to regain the initiative in the conflict.

Meanwhile, an unnamed NATO military official with knowledge of the intelligence told CNN that the momentum in the conflict had shifted significantly in favor of Ukraine, although the alliance doesn't expect significant gains for either side in the coming weeks.

On the diplomatic front, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of Finland and Sweden on May 19 and welcomed their NATO membership bids.

Biden expressed strong support for the applications of Sweden and Finland, calling them two “great democracies" and "highly capable partners.”

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, and TASS

Zelenskiy Mocks Russia's Claim Of Laser Weapon Ready To Deploy In Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers video address on May 18.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Russia's claim that it is close to introducing a high-powered laser weapon system to shoot down drones in Ukraine is wartime propaganda distributed by leaders afraid to admit their "catastrophic mistakes."

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said at a conference near Moscow on May 18 that Russia had developed laser systems that "are many times more powerful, allowing for the incineration of various targets," the state-run news agency TASS reported.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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According to the report, the new system has a range of 5 kilometers and was tested on May 18, incinerating a drone within five seconds.

Asked if such weapons were being used in Ukraine, Borisov said: "Yes. The first prototypes are already being used there."

The information could not be verified, and no pictures of the laser system accompanied the report, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 unveiled that a laser weapon was part of a secret arsenal.

The laser system is to replace air-defense missiles, which are much more expensive, according to Borisov, who also praised a Russian laser weapon called Peresvet, which he said was being widely deployed and, while it cannot shoot down drones, can blind satellites up to 1,500 kilometers above Earth.

Zelenskiy mocked the announcement in his nightly video address, saying it “clearly indicates the complete failure of the invasion” and shows that Russian leaders "are afraid to admit that catastrophic mistakes were made at the highest state and military level in Russia."

Zelenskiy said Russian leaders were searching for a "wonder weapon," a reference to propaganda that Nazi Germany spread about nonexistent weapons that would ensure a turning point after it became clear that Germany had no chance of winning the war.

The Ukrainian military earlier said its forces repulsed 16 attacks by the Russian Army in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and destroyed several units of Russian equipment, including eight tanks and more than 20 armored vehicles and shot down a Su-34 fighter jet.

But the military also said fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had killed at least 15 civilians and destroyed and damaged dozens of houses.

The claims of the Ukrainian military could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian officials said earlier on May 18 that they were trying to negotiate the release of the remaining soldiers holed up at Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers at the plant -- Ukraine's last stronghold in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol -- had "surrendered" by early on May 18.

All of them were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed the numbers, and Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said negotiations for the fighters' release were ongoing, as were plans to extract those who are still inside the sprawling steel plant.

Reports have estimated that as many as 2,000 Ukrainian fighters had been holed up in Azovstal.

In diplomatic developments, the United States said it was reopening its embassy in Kyiv, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved President Joe Biden's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"The Ukrainian people...have defended their homeland in the face of Russia's unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement announcing the reopening of the embassy.

The nomination of veteran diplomat Bridget Brink is expected to easily win a vote in the full Senate after clearing the committee.

Russia said it was expelling embassy staff from France, Spain, and Italy in retaliation for similar moves by those countries.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on May 18 that it had informed diplomats from the three countries that they been declared personae non gratae.

In another retaliatory move, Russia announced that it will close the Moscow offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) after Canada formally banned RT and RT France from its airwaves.

RT has been accused of spreading propaganda and blocked in most Western countries since Russia's launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova underscored that the decision was a retaliatory measure, saying Canada's ban on RT had been "Russophobic" and said the CBC had become "propaganda noise."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau slammed the decision, saying "responsible journalism -- sharing what's actually going on with citizens -- is a deep threat to Vladimir Putin."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, and TASS

Russia Closes Moscow Bureau Of Canadian Public Broadcaster

The stand of Russia's state-controlled RT broadcaster is seen at a forum in St. Petersburg (file photo)

Russia has announced that it will close the Moscow offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in retaliation for Ottawa's ban of Russian state media outlet RT.

Canada in March formally banned RT and RT France from its airwaves, saying their programming is "not consistent with Canadian broadcasting standards."

RT has been accused of spreading propaganda and blocked in most Western countries since Russia's launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.


Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on May 18 announced the decision to close the CBC offices, underscoring that it is a retaliatory measure related to the actions of Canada. Visas and accreditation for the broadcaster's journalists also will be revoked, she said.

Zakharova said Canada's ban on RT had been "Russophobic" and said the CBC had become "propaganda noise."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau slammed decision, saying "responsible journalism -- sharing what's actually going on with citizens -- is a deep threat to Vladimir Putin."

Trudeau added on Twitter that the move was "unacceptable" and that journalists must be "free from censorship, intimidation, and interference."


Canada has been a strong supporter of Ukraine in the conflict, and Trudeau was in Kyiv last week promising to send weapons and equipment to help it defeat the Russians. The Canadian Senate also is considering a bill that would ban Putin and around 1,000 members of his government and military from entering the country.

CBC News Editor in Chief Brodie Fenlon said the public broadcaster was "deeply disappointed" by the decision, which it said "appears to be another step by Russia to stifle a free and independent press within its borders."

Fenlon said in a statement that CBC's journalism "is completely independent of the Canadian government and we are saddened to see the Russian government conflate the two."



With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Biden's Nominee To Be U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine Approved By Senate Committee

Bridget Brink, President Biden's nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (file photo)

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has unanimously approved President Joe Biden's nominee to be the next ambassador to Ukraine.

The nomination of veteran diplomat Bridget Brink is expected to easily win a vote in the full Senate, which in 2019 unanimously confirmed her to her current post as U.S. ambassador to Slovakia.

Biden nominated Brink late last month, and the committee held her confirmation hearing less than two weeks later. The quick action underscored lawmakers’ desire to fill a crucial position that has been vacant for three years.

Congress also sees it as a show of support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy along with nearly $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Kyiv that is expected to pass later this week.

Brink, who speaks Russian, has been a career diplomat for 25 years and has worked in Uzbekistan and Georgia as well as in several senior positions across the State Department and the White House National Security Council.


With reporting by Reuters

Russian Director Condemns War At Cannes Film Festival

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is seen outside a court in Moscow (file photo)

Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov spoke out against the war in Ukraine on May 18 following the global premiere of his film Tchaikovsky's Wife at the Cannes Film Festival.

"No to the war," Serebrennikov said in Russian as he received a standing ovation for his drama, which is the only film by a Russian director among 21 entered for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d'Or.

Serebrennikov appeared at a Cannes press conference on May 18 over FaceTime and discussed Russia's war in Ukraine and later told the AP that he perceives the making of movies and plays “a big, vast statement against war.”

Serebrennikov, who fled Russia in March, said even as late as February 23 -- one day before the invasion started -- he did not believe war with Ukraine was possible, but it happened.

“My motherland destroyed another country,” he said in the AP interview. “It's very painful, it's very sad. It's a catastrophe for all people, for Europe, for both sides.”

He said many people “can't say anything, and sometimes, powerlessness and speechlessness is much more painful.”

Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux said the festival wrestled with whether to include Tchaikovsky’s Wife, which was partially financed by sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, in the competition. Organizers ultimately decided to allow it because it counters Russian state narratives and it was shot before the war and subsequent sanctions.

The movie highlights the destructive marriage of Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky to a young woman.

Set in the 19th century, the film portrays Tchaikovsky as a troubled and charismatic genius who prefers the company of men -- a challenge to Russian propaganda, which has attempted to hide the famous composer's homosexuality.

Serebrennikov left Russia after a court canceled a suspended three-year prison sentence he was handed in an embezzlement case that many have called politically motivated.

The case drew international attention and prompted accusations that Russian authorities were targeting cultural figures who are at odds with President Vladimir Putin and his government.

Hailed as a daring and innovative force on Russia's modern art scene, Serebrennikov before leaving Russia took part in antigovernment protests and voiced concern about the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox church in the country.

The war has already been a major theme at the festival. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 17 made a surprise appearance during the opening ceremony, speaking in a live video broadcast from Kyiv.

There will be a special screening of Mariupolis 2, a documentary about the conflict by Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius, who was killed in Ukraine last month.

Ukrainian filmmakers also will get a special day at the festival, and one of the country's most promising directors, Serhiy Loznitsa, will show The Natural History of Destruction, a film about the bombing of German cities in World War II.



With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Russian Soldier Accused Of War Crime Pleads Guilty At Trial In Kyiv

Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin is seen in court in Kyiv while standing trial for war crimes on May 18.

The first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine has pleaded guilty at a hearing in a Kyiv court.

When asked in court on May 18 if he was guilty of killing a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian who was riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy, Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, dressed in a blue and gray hoodie at the hearing, replied: "Yes."

Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, faces life in prison if convicted.

Ukrainian state prosecutors say Shishimarin, 21, was ordered to kill the civilian to prevent him reporting on the Russians' presence. He fired several shots through an open car window, hitting the civilian in the head, according to the prosecution.

Viktor Ovsyannikov, the soldier's lawyer, said he would build his case after hearing witness testimony and described the trial as without precedent.

He added that he had not consulted with anyone in Russia about the case except Shishimarin's mother, and he "provided her with all the necessary explanations."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia has no information about the trial, adding that Russia's ability to provide assistance is limited due to the absence of its diplomatic mission.

The killing occurred just days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Shishimarin, a member of a tank unit that was captured by Ukrainian forces, admitted that he shot the civilian in a video posted earlier this month by the Security Service of Ukraine.

“I was ordered to shoot,” Shishimarin said in the video as he described the February 28 killing. “I shot one (round) at him. He falls. And we kept on going.”

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova last month identified 10 soldiers of the 64th Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Russian armed forces, saying that they are suspected of "cruelty toward civilians and other war crimes," adding that Ukrainian investigators are continuing to gather evidence and those named were just the first.

She also said at the time that investigations were under way to find out if the 10 Russians took part in the killing of civilians in Bucha.

The retreat of Russian forces from Bucha and other towns near Kyiv revealed harrowing evidence of brutal killings, torture, mass graves, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the fighting.

On May 12, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) overwhelmingly approved a resolution to set up an investigation into allegations of abuses by Russian troops in areas of Ukraine they temporarily controlled.

The UNHRC's resolution cited apparent cases of torture, shootings, and sexual violence, along with other atrocities documented by a UN team on the ground.


With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Biden Expresses Strong Support For Finland, Sweden NATO Bids

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg holds up papers with the flags of Finland and Sweden in Brussels on May 18.

U.S. President Joe Biden has strongly backed the bids of Finland and Sweden to join NATO in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and said the United States will remain vigilant against any threats to their security.

"I warmly welcome and strongly support the historic applications from Finland and Sweden for membership in NATO and look forward to working with the U.S. Congress and our NATO Allies to quickly bring Finland and Sweden into the strongest defensive alliance in history," Biden said in a statement on May 18.


The statement came after Finland and Sweden handed in their official applications for NATO membership, ending their longtime neutrality amid growing concerns over Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.

Biden said while the bids are considered the United States "will work with Finland and Sweden to remain vigilant against any threats to our shared security, and to deter and confront aggression or the threat of aggression."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking earlier in Brussels, also welcomed the move.

"The applications you have made today are an historic step. Allies will now consider the next steps on your path to NATO," Stoltenberg said.


Both Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union, and the latter shares 1,340 kilometers of border with Russia.

The two Nordic countries' choice to join NATO marks a watershed in the current European security architecture.

Helsinki chose to remain neutral in the postwar era following two wars with the Soviet Union that saw Finland lose one-tenth of its territory, while Sweden has been traditionally nonaligned for the past two centuries.

The application has set in motion a process that is expected to move quickly, although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed reservations about Finland and Sweden joining.

Erdogan said on May 16 he could not agree to the accession of two countries that support "terrorist organizations," a reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Kurdish militia People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria.

But Turkey sent mixed signals after a meeting on May 18 between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The Turkish minister affirmed his country's support for NATO's "open-door" policy and its understanding of Finland and Sweden's desire to join the alliance, but he also repeated Erdogan's demands.

"With regard to these candidate countries, we have also legitimate security concerns that they have been supporting terrorist organizations and there are also export restrictions on defense products," he said.

"We understand their security concerns but Turkey’s security concerns should be also met and this is one issue that we should continue discussing with friends and allies, including the United States," Cavusoglu said.

Blinken stressed that Washington would work to ensure the NATO expansion process is successful.

"Today we had Finland and Sweden submit their applications and this, of course, is a process and we will work through that process as allies and partners," Blinken said.

A joint statement released after the meeting did not mention Finland or Sweden and made only a passing reference to NATO.

The statement said the two men met "to reaffirm their strong cooperation as partners and NATO allies" and committed "to deepen bilateral cooperation through constructive and open dialogue."

If Turkish objections are resolved, the two Nordic countries could become members within a few months, fast-forwarding a process that usually takes eight to 12 months.

NATO wants to speed up the accession process given the two countries' proximity to Russia and Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, dpa, and AFP

Ukraine Marks Anniversary Of Stalin-Era Deportations Of Crimean Tatars

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi gave an address for the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide in Kyiv on May 18.

KYIV -- Ukraine has marked the 78th anniversary of the Stalin-era deportations of Crimean Tatars from Crimea.

May 18 is the date that Ukraine officially marks as the Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Genocide of the Crimean Tatars.

Due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, events devoted to the anniversary were not held as widely as they normally are, however, smaller gatherings were held across the country to offer prayers for the victims of the deportations in 1944.

Refat Chubarov, chairman of Crimean Tatar’s self-governing body Mejlis, said on Facebook that a commemoration of the deportations' victims was held in Russia-occupied Crimea as well.

Hundreds of people took part in honoring the victims in the Crimean city of Kerch, bringing flowers to a monument to the victims and taking part in prayers.

Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 was vocally opposed by many Crimean Tatars, who are a sizable minority in the region.

Exiled to Central Asia by Soviet authorities under the dictatorship of Josef Stalin during World War II, many Crimean Tatars are very wary of Russia and Moscow's rule.

U.S. Unlikely To Extend License Allowing Russia To Pay Bond Debt, Increasing Possibility Of Default

Russian ruble banknotes and coins (file photo)

The United States is unlikely to extend a license that allows Russia to pay U.S. bondholders, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on May 18.

Moscow faces deadline on May 25 when the license allowing it to make payments to U.S. bondholders is due to expire. Failure to make the payments could put Moscow closer to defaulting on its debt.

Yellen, who is on a visit to Europe meant to address the effects of the war in Ukraine, spoke in Germany ahead of a Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers meeting in Bonn.

Asked by reporters if the United States would allow the license to expire, Yellen said: "There's not been a final decision on that, but I think it's unlikely that it would continue."

But she added that if Russia is unable to make the payments and it defaults, it would not represent a significant change in Russia's situation because the country is already cut off from global capital markets.

Russia has so far managed to make its international bond payments even though Western sanctions ban transactions with the Russian Finance Ministry, central bank, or national wealth fund.

Yellen also noted risks to the world economy brought on by the war, which has touched off a sharp increase in energy and food prices that are contributing to a slowdown in growth.

“The economic outlook globally is challenging and uncertain,” Yellen said. “And higher food and energy prices are having stagflationary effects, namely depressing output and spending and raising inflation all around the world.”

To address concerns about food shortages, the United States, several global development banks, and other groups on May 18 unveiled a multibillion dollar plan that aims to prevent starvation prompted by the war, the U.S. Treasury Department said.

Based on reporting by Retuers and AP

Russia Expels Dozens Of European Diplomats In Reciprocal Move

The headquarters of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow (file photo)

Russia has announced the expulsion of dozens of European diplomats in a "retaliatory" move for similar actions taken across the continent as part of a coordinated campaign over Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on May 18 that it had informed France, Spain, and Italy that members of their diplomatic missions in Russia have been declared personae non grata.

It said the French ambassador was told that 34 employees of French "diplomatic institutions in Russia" must leave the country within two weeks, while Rome was informed that 24 Italian diplomats also were being expelled for similar reasons and were ordered out of the country within eight days.

Another 27 diplomats from Spain were also told they must leave Russia within seven days.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called the decision a "hostile act" that he said "absolutely must not lead to an interruption of diplomatic channels because it is through those channels that, if we succeed, peace will be achieved and that is certainly what we want."

France, which in April kicked out 35 Russians with diplomatic status, condemned the May 18 move by Moscow.

At the same time, Rome informed Moscow that 30 Russian diplomats had been told to leave the country "for national security reasons."

In all, European countries have expelled more than 300 Russian diplomatic staff since Moscow launched its war against Ukraine on February 24.


With reporting by RIA Novosti

Police Break Into Apartment Of Self-Exiled Former Associate Of Navalny

Natalya Peterimova, an associate of jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Police in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk have broken into the apartment of a former associate of jailed opposition activist Aleksei Navalny and searched the home, the former Navalny associate told RFE/RL.

Natalya Peterimova, who fled Russia fearing for her safety, told RFE/RL that police broke in her apartment on May 18.

According to Peterimova, police ordered her mother to arrive at her apartment in Krasnoyarsk and unlock its door, which Peterimova's mother refused to do.

Peterimova says police then broke the door and windows and searched the premises.

"They refused to give any explanations to my mom and when I talked to them by phone, they also refused to give explanations. A number of procedural regulations were violated," said Peterimova, who worked in Navalny's regional office in Krasnoyarsk before fleeing the country.

She added that it is very likely that a criminal case on extremism charges similar to cases launched against other former associates of Navalny has been launched against her.

Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and his political movement were declared extremist organizations by the Russian authorities in June 2021 and disbanded.

Several of the Kremlin critic's associates subsequently were charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have fled the country amid pressure from the Russian authorities.

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