Lavrov Says U.S.-Russia Monitoring Center For Syria To Be Created
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says an agreement has been reached to create a joint Russian-U.S. center in Geneva in the coming days that will be tasked with monitoring cease-fire violations in Syria.
Lavrov announced the development after his talks in Moscow on May 3 with the United Nations' Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura.
De Mistura said after the talks that renewing indirect negotiations in Geneva between Syrian government and opposition negotiators was linked to reestablishing a cease-fire in and around Aleppo, where air strikes and intense ground combat have flared during the past two weeks.
Lavrov said there was no possibility to create the conditions necessary for direct peace talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian opposition that is backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Western countries.
The opposition has been demanding that Assad step down from power as a precondition for direct peace talks.
Germany's Foreign Ministry announced on May 3 that Berlin will host talks on May 4 with French officials, de Mistura, and Syria's main opposition leaders to discuss "how the conditions for a continuation of the peace talks in Geneva can be met."
Based on reporting by Interfax, Reuters and AFP
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Lukashenka Performs Balancing Act On Ukraine, Britain's Defense Ministry Says
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears careful to avoid direct involvement in Russia's war in Ukraine out of concern about potential further economic reprisals, retaliation from Kyiv, and possibly discontent among his own armed forces, British intelligence said on May 16.
The West has imposed biting sanctions on Belarus following a 2020 election which the opposition says was heavily rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who subsequently unleashed a harsh crackdown on protesters, activists, and the media.
Isolated and economically weakened, Lukashenka has again turned to long-time ally Vladimir Putin for support, and once Moscow invaded Ukraine, he allowed Russia to launch attacks and supply forces from Belarusian territory.
However, despite early speculation, Belarus has not been directly involved in the conflict, the Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on Twitter on May 16.
Belarus announced the deployment of special forces along the Ukraine border following military maneuvers earlier this month, a move that Britain's Ministry of Defense said was likely to force Ukraine to keep a number of troops in the border area and prevent their deployment in the east.
But Lukashenka is "likely balancing support for Russia’s invasion with a desire to avoid direct military participation with the risk of Western sanctions, Ukrainian retaliation and possible dissatisfaction in the Belarusian military," the bulletin concluded.
Ukraine Braces For Fresh Russian Attacks In East, NATO Says Kyiv Can Win War
Ukraine on May 16 prepared for a renewed Russian assault in the east as NATO said that Moscow's invasion was not going to plan and its push to capture the Donbas has ground to a halt.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's military said its counterattack around Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, gained momentum.
"We are preparing for new attempts by Russia to attack in Donbas, to somehow intensify its movement in the south of Ukraine," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address late on May 15.
"The occupiers still do not want to admit that they are in a dead-end and their so-called 'special operation' has already gone bankrupt," he added.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russian troops were being transferred in the direction of Donbas after withdrawing from Kharkiv following the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Russian invasion has been met with stiff Ukrainian resistance and has had numerous logistical issues.
Moscow's initial objective appeared to be a large-scale occupation of Ukraine and the toppling of its government.
But Russia has been forced to withdrawn from areas around the capital Kyiv after failing to capture it and since mid-April has been focusing its efforts on eastern Ukraine.
Russia lost large numbers of men and much military equipment and was hit by economic sanctions, while Western states have provided Ukraine with military aid.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting with top diplomats from the alliance in Berlin on May 15, said the war “is not going as Moscow had planned."
"They failed to take Kyiv, they are pulling back from around Kharkiv, their major offensive in Donbas has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives," Stoltenberg said
“Ukraine can win this war,” he said, adding that the alliance must continue to offer military support to Kyiv.
Kyiv's troops have made progress in the northern region and they have almost reached the border with Russia, according to interior ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko, although air raid sirens still sounded in Kharkiv city early May 16.
Arestovych said the retreating Russian forces were being sent towards Luhansk in the east.
"Their task is to take [the eastern city of] Severodonetsk," he said. "Well, something is not working for them."
Ukraine has deployed many of its newly received U.S. howitzers at the front lines, and Washington has delivered all but one of the 90 artillery pieces they were due to send, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv said.
In Estonia, NATO kicks-off some of the largest-ever exercises later on May 16. The scheduled exercise, codenamed Hedgehog, will last two weeks and involve 15,000 troops from 10 countries, including Britain, the United States, and non-members Finland and Sweden.
Both Finland and Sweden have conformed they will seek NATO membership, marking a historic shift.
Finland announced May 15 that it was seeking to join the alliance, while several hours later, Sweden’s governing party backed Stockholm's bid for membership, which could lead to an application in days.
In Brussels, foreign ministers from the 27-member European Union meet on May 16 to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Russian sanctions. The meeting will be attended by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba.
On the ground in Ukraine, bitter fighting continued throughout the country.
In the western city of Lviv on May 15, regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said four Russian missiles hit military infrastructure near the border with Poland -- the first time the city has been struck since May 3.
No casualties were reported, and Ukrainian armed forces said they destroyed two cruise missiles over the region.
In the south, the mayor of the southern city of Mykolaiv said blasts had been heard early May 16.
In the southeastern city of Mariupol, about 600 Ukrainian troops remained holed up in underground tunnels and bunkers under a steelworks there, fighting a rear-guard battle.
In his address, Zelensky said "very complicated and delicate negotiations to save our people" in the vast Azovstal plant continued daily.
The defenders' wives have said there is very little water at Azovstal and their husbands have to drink service water previously used for the plant's operation.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, and BBC
UN Working Group Concludes Turkmenistan Violated Human Rights Laws In Arresting Lawyer
A UN working group has concluded that Turkmenistan violated international human rights laws when it detained a lawyer who was organizing a pro-democracy rally.
Police in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation arrested Pygamberdy Allaberdyev, a lawyer at a state oil company, in September 2020 for “hooliganism” after a man attacked him near a grocery store in the western city of Balkanabat.
Officers for Turkmenistan’s National Security Ministry immediately took over the case and charged Allaberdyev with having ties with the activists abroad.
He was sentenced later that month to six years in prison after a closed-door, two-hour trial during which he had no legal representation.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention last week determined that Allaberdyev was arrested for exercising his freedom of expression and association, according to the human rights group Freedom Now, which is helping Allaberdyev.
“We welcome the Working Group’s recognition that Pygamberdy Allaberdyev is wrongfully detained,” Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat said in a May 13 statemnt.
“Allaberdyev’s imprisonment is indicative of Turkmenistan’s intolerance of dissent and its strategy of using fabricated charges to silence its citizens. We call on the Turkmen government to comply with the United Nations’ decision and immediately and unconditionally release Allaberdyev.”
Prison officials have denied family and legal representatives access to Allaberdyev since his sentencing.
Allaberdyev was accused of having links to Turkmen activists residing abroad who had staged a number of rallies in the United States, Turkey, and Northern Cyprus to protest against constitutional amendments.
Allaberdyev had denied any links to the activists.
The protesters in the United States at the time suspected autocratic leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of using the constitutional amendments to secure his lifetime presidency and its eventual succession to his son and grandchildren.
Berdymukhammedov's son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, in March won a presidential election in a unfair contest widely viewed as a formality to the transfer of political power within the family.
It is unclear what, if any, effect the UN working group decision will have on Allaberdyev’s fate.
More Russian Military Enlistment Buildings Targeted In Possible Sign Of War Protest
Unidentified individuals have attempted to set fire to military enlistment offices in two locations in Russia in a possible sign of protest against the war in Ukraine.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 at least 10 enlistment offices have been attacked, according to Russian news portal Baza.
In the early morning hours of May 15, individuals tried but failed to set fire to an office in the village of Pronsk in Ryazan region, located about 270 kilometers southeast of Moscow, the news agency reported.
Around the same time, a fire broke out at an office in the city of Volgograd in Russia's south.
Police believe a Molotov cocktail was tossed through the window. The fire damaged about 20 square meters.
On May 13, a military enlistment office in the town of Gukovo in the southern Rostov region was partially burned. A Molotov cocktail is also believed to be the cause of that fire, which was quickly put out.
Military enlistment offices in the northern Khanty-Mansi region in and Volgodonsk region in the south have also been attacked.
Finland, Sweden Move Closer To Joining NATO Amid Russian Aggression
Finland and Sweden have moved closer to joining NATO, ending decades of neutrality, amid growing concern at home over Russia’s military aggression.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced at a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on May 15 that the country intended to apply for NATO membership.
"Today, the president of the republic and the government's Foreign Policy Committee have jointly agreed that Finland will apply for NATO membership, after consulting parliament. This is a historic day. A new era is opening," they said.
Last week, the president and prime minister said they both favored NATO membership, in a major policy shift prompted by the war in Ukraine.
Sweden's ruling Social Democratic Party said later the same day it is in favor of joining NATO. The party will seek parliament's backing on May 16, with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson's cabinet expected to make an announcement afterward.
"The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO," Andersson told a news conference following the party's decision.
Sweden has repeatedly accused Russia of violating its airspace over the years.
Finland shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia and has remained militarily nonaligned for 75 years.
But political and public opinion within Finland swung dramatically in favor of membership after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Putin's actions have raised fears among his neighbors that he may seek to further redraw Europe's borders. Moscow invaded Finland in 1939, seizing part of its territory.
Russia has said it would be a mistake for Helsinki to join the transatlantic alliance and that it would harm bilateral ties.
Earlier this week, Niinisto told reporters that "joining NATO would not be against anyone." He said his response to Russia would be: "You caused this. Look in the mirror."
The Finnish parliament is expected to endorse the decision in the coming days, but it is considered a formality.
In Sweden -- which has been militarily nonaligned for more than two centuries -- support for NATO membership has also risen dramatically, to around 50 percent, with about 20 percent against.
NATO diplomats met in Berlin on May 15 to discuss membership expansion as well as additional aid to Ukraine.
Following the talks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was "very confident" Finland and Sweden would be accepted into the alliance, despite some initial objections by Turkey.
NATO membership needs to be approved and ratified by all members of the alliance.
"I don't want to characterize the specific conversation that we had either with the [Turkish] foreign minister or within the NATO sessions themselves, but I can say this much: I heard almost across the board, very strong support [for Sweden, Finland] joining the alliance," he said.
Turkey's objections, directed in particular at Stockholm, focus on what it considers to be the countries' leniency toward the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by Ankara as well as the United States and the European Union.
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he was ready to discuss the matter with both Finland and Sweden, as well as with other NATO members.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country and others made clear that they would be willing to fast-track the national ratification process for Finland and Sweden.
Also, former Soviet country Georgia's bid was expected to be discussed in Berlin despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences if its neighbor joins NATO.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod dismissed suggestions that objections from Russian President Vladimir Putin could hinder the alliance from letting in new members.
Kofod said that each country has a fundamental right to choose their own security arrangement.
"We see now a world where the enemy of democracy No. 1 is Putin and the thinking that he represents," he said.
Kofod pointed out that NATO would also stand with other countries, such as Georgia, which he said were being "instrumentalized" by Russia.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and dpa
Italy Blocks Cyberattacks By Pro-Russian Groups During Eurovision Contest
The Italian police have thwarted hacking attacks by pro-Russian groups during the May 10 semifinal and the May 14 final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, authorities say.
Police said on May 15 that during voting operations and contestants' performances, police had mitigated several cyberattacks on network infrastructure by the hacker group Killnet and its affiliate, Legion.
Ukraine's Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of May 15, with their entry Stefania.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, many Western governments have raised alert levels in anticipation of possible cyberattacks on IT systems and infrastructure.
Last week, pro-Russian hackers targeted the websites of several Italian institutions, including the Defense Ministry and the Senate.
The attacks had reportedly not compromised infrastructure but hindered access to several websites, including the National Institute of Health.
Italian media said the pro-Kremlin group Killnet claimed the cyberattack.
In April, Killnet targeted Romanian government websites, citing Romania's support for Ukraine in the war, according to the country's national cybersecurity agency.
Earlier, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined a chorus of tributes for Ukraine victory, calling it a "reflection" not just of talent, but "unwavering support" for Ukraine's "fight for freedom.”
"Congratulations to Ukraine for winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2022," Johnson tweeted on May 15. "It is a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom."
Ukrainian folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra won in the early hours of May 15, followed by Britain's Sam Ryder in second place.
Receiving the trophy, Kalush Orchestra said: "Thank you for supporting Ukraine. This victory is for every Ukrainian. Slava Ukrayini!" (Glory to Ukraine!).
Russia was excluded this year from competing after its February 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of a contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.
With reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, and AFP
Iranian Film Workers Arrested, Homes Raided
A renowned Iranian filmmaker has said that the offices and homes of several filmmakers and other industry professionals were raided and some of them arrested in recent days.
Mohammad Rasoulof made the comments on Instagram late on May 14, posting a statement signed by dozens of movie industry professionals.
The statement also claimed that security forces confiscated film production equipment during the raids. It condemned the actions and called them "illegal."
In a separate Instagram post, Rasoulof identified two of the detained filmmakers as Firouzeh Khosravani and Mina Keshavarz. Rasoulof himself was not targeted in the recent raids.
There were no immediate comments from the Iranian authorities on the raids, and no additional details were immediately available.
Rasoulof won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize in 2020 for his film There Is No Evil. The film tells four stories loosely connected to the themes of the death penalty in the Islamic republic and personal freedoms under oppression.
Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison shortly after receiving the award, but his lawyer appealed the sentence. He has been banned from making films and traveling abroad.
Iran occasionally arrest activists in cultural fields over alleged security violations.
Iran's conservative authorities have long viewed many cultural activities as part of a "soft war" by the West against Iran and an attempt to tarnish the country's Islamic beliefs.
Based on reporting by AP
Russia's Offensive In Ukraine Has Lost Momentum, Western Military Officials Say
Russia's military campaign in Ukraine appears to be faltering as its forces struggle to take more territory in the Donbas amid fierce resistance, Western military officials said.
After initially failing to take the capital, Kyiv, in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces have refocused their efforts on eastern and southern Ukraine.
However, their offensives have been met with substantial resistance, with some Western intelligence saying Russia may have lost up to one-third of its combat strength since it began its unprovoked invasion on February 24.
"The brutal invasion [by] Russia is losing momentum," NATO Deputy-Secretary General Mircea Geoana said on May 15. "We know that with the bravery of the Ukrainian people and army, and with our help, Ukraine can win this war."
Geoana made the comments in Berlin, where top NATO diplomats gathered to discuss providing further support to Ukraine and moves by Finland, Sweden, and others to join the Western alliance in the face of threats from Russia.
Geoana, who chaired the meeting, said Ukraine's supporters were "united, we are strong, will continue to help Ukraine in winning this war."
Alliance members have already given the country billions of dollars in lethal and nonlethal military aid to help repel the largest invasion in Europe since the end of World War II.
According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, "more weapons and other aid" was "on the way to Ukraine."
The United States and other NATO members have given Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as well as heavy artillery.
Kuleba made the comment after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Berlin. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken conveyed details regarding the latest tranche of U.S. security assistance to bolster Ukraine's defenses.
Kuleba was due to brief NATO foreign ministers on the situation on the ground in Ukraine and on how the alliance can further help the country as it battles invading Russian forces for a 12th week.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, in Stockholm after visiting the Ukrainian capital on May 14, told reporters on a conference call that he expected the Senate to approve just under $40 billion in further aid for Ukraine in a vote on May 18.
U.S. President Joe Biden had requested $33 billion in aid for Ukraine on April 28, including over $20 billion in military assistance. But House lawmakers boosted that amount to roughly $40 billion, adding more military and humanitarian aid.
British military intelligence said in its regular update that the Russian forces' offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region "has lost momentum and fallen significantly behind schedule."
Russia has now likely suffered losses of one-third of the ground combat force it committed in February, Britain's Ministry of Defense tweeted on May 15.
Many of those losses occurred in the first few weeks of the war as Russia sought to capture Kyiv and impose a puppet regime loyal to Moscow. Russia has since shifted its focus to the Donbas, an area comprising the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Britain's Defense Ministry said that despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains in the Donbas over the past month while sustaining consistently high levels of attrition.
Russian forces are increasingly constrained by degraded enabling capabilities, continued low morale, and reduced combat effectiveness, the ministry said.
"Many of these capabilities cannot be quickly replaced or reconstituted, and are likely to continue to hinder Russian operations in Ukraine," the bulletin added.
The ministry predicts that under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days.
The assessments of Russia's war performance came as Russian troops retreated from around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, after bombarding it for weeks.
The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Russia hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine's military says that Moscow is now focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery, and air strikes in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address early on May 15 that "the situation in Donbas remains very difficult" and Russian troops were "still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious."
Russian forces continued attacks on May 15, shelling military infrastructure in the Lviv region in western Ukraine. No deaths or casualties were reported following the rocket attack, Lviv Governor Maksym Kozytskiy said on Telegram.
The governor said the extent of the destruction was being investigated. One site near Yavoriv -- presumably around the military training area there -- was "completely destroyed," according to the governor.
Earlier, a regional air command of Ukraine said several missiles had been fired at the Lviv region from the Black Sea in the early hours of May 15.
This was the first Russian air strike in about a week in the region near the Polish border.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa
Ukrainian Band Wins Eurovision Song Contest
Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest with its performance of Stefania in what appeared to be a show of popular support for the country battling against a full-scale invasion by Russia.
The victory early on May 15 entitles Ukraine -- which has won three previous times -- to host next year's event, which Ukrainian officials defiantly said will be held in the hotly contested and now mostly destroyed port city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the victory, saying that "we will do our best" to host next year's contest in "Ukrainian Mariupol...free, peaceful, and rebuilt!"
"Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine hosts Eurovision! For the third time in our history," Zelenskiy said on Telegram.
Britain took second place in the competition, while Spain was third. Sweden was fourth, and Serbia placed fifth in the contest, which took place in Turin, Italy.
Italy hosted the event after rock band Maneskin won the 2021 contest in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organized the event, earlier said no acts from Russia would be part of this year’s contest because of the invasion of Ukraine.
As for next year's event, the EBU said no decision had been made about the logistics for the finals.
"Obviously, there are unique challenges involved in hosting next year's competition. However, as in any other year, we look forward to discussing all the requirements and responsibilities involved in hosting the competition with [Ukrainian broadcasters] and all other stakeholders to ensure we have the most suitable setup for the 67th Eurovision Song Contest."
Eurovision is one of the most popular cultural events in Europe and is watched by tens of millions of people on live television. The winner is decided on a vote of a professional jury and by public vote.
With reporting by AP and dpa
Zelenskiy Signs Law Banning Pro-Russian Political Parties In Ukraine
KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has signed a new law banning pro-Russian political parties.
"The president of Ukraine has signed a law banning pro-Russia political parties! The law will come into force on the day following the day of its publication," Olha Sovgirya, a deputy from Zelenskiy’s ruling Servant of the People bloc, wrote on telegram on May 14.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, passed the bill on May 3, banning pro-Russian political parties that engage in anti-Ukrainian activities.
On March 20, Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council suspended 11 pro-Russian political parties while martial law was in place in the country.
The largest of the parties with links to Russia is the Opposition Platform for Life, which has 44 out of 450 seats in parliament.
The party is led by Viktor Medvedchuk, who has friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter.
The list of the Moscow-friendly parties also included the Nashi (Ours) party led by Yevhen Murayev. British authorities had warned that Russia wanted to install Murayev as the leader of Ukraine.
Moscow "is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine," and Murayev "is being considered as a potential candidate," the British Foreign Office said in January.
Portugal Blocks Sale Of $10 Million Mansion Suspected Of Belonging To Abramovich
Portugal has blocked the sale of a $10.4 million mansion because of a "strong conviction" it belongs to Kremlin-linked billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has been hit by Western sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Joao Cravinho said on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Berlin on May 14 that the property registry of the luxury home in the Quinta do Lago resort in the Algarve had been frozen.
He said the move was made at the request of the Foreign Ministry on March 25, about a month after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The action means the property cannot be sold or rented and that a mortgage cannot be taken out on it.
"We have a strong conviction, which hasn't been fully confirmed, the house belongs to Roman Abramovich," Cravinho said.
"The challenge here is that many of those sanctioned do not have their properties and assets in their names."
A representative for Abramovich told Reuters he did not own "any property in Portugal."
The billionaire was granted Portuguese citizenship in April 2021 based on a 2013 Portuguese law offering naturalization to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were persecuted and expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century.
Abramovich has been sanctioned by the British government and the European Union over his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has denied having such ties.
On May 7, the British soccer club Chelsea announced it would be sold to a group of investors led by an American billionaire, formally ending nearly two decades of ownership by Abramovich.
Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Reuters
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Brings Delegation To Kyiv, Meets With Zelenskiy
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and a delegation of Republican senators arrived in Kyiv for an unannounced visit and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a show of support for the besieged country.
McConnell (Kentucky) traveled with Susan Collins (Maine), John Barrasso (Wyoming), and John Cornyn (Texas) to the Ukrainian capital, with Zelenskiy calling the visit “a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people.”
The trip came as a new round of funding for Ukraine’s battle against the unprovoked Russian invasion is facing a delay in the U.S. Senate because of a Republican member’s objection.
The Senate is working to approve a nearly $40 billion package for Ukraine, but its passage has been held up by Senator Rand Paul, also of Kentucky, who demanded the inclusion of a proposal to have an inspector general scrutinize the new spending.
Nevertheless, final approval is not in doubt and could come in the upcoming week as Ukraine has widespread bipartisan support in Congress.
The McConnell-led visit is the second by a high-profile congressional delegation over the past two weeks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) visited on May 1 with a group of House Democrats, bringing a promise of continued U.S. aid to Ukraine.
Based on reporting by AP, The Washington Post, and CNN
Russian Food Blogger Added To Interior Ministry's Wanted List
Russia's Interior Ministry has added a food blogger and magazine founder to its wanted list for allegedly "spreading fake news" about the Russian military.
Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg glossy magazine and website Sobaka and currently lives in France, commented on May 14 upon learning that she was added to the list by writing: "The first? I have officially been recognized as a decent person!"
Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case in March against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading fake news about the Russian army.
She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."
Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events there as a “special military operation” and not a war or an invasion.
She is one of the first to be added to the wanted list under the Criminal Code's article covering "fake news."
Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to employees.
Russian Authorities In Crimea Charge Detained Activist With Possession Of Explosives
The Crimean branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has charged health-care activist Iryna Danylovych with the illegal possession of explosives.
The Ukrainian news site Grati reported on May 13 that the 43-year-old Danylovych, whose mysterious disappearance in Crimea on April 29 led to an expansive search by her family and lawyer, was held for a week in the basement of the FSB headquarters in the territorial capital of Simferopol.
The FSB has claimed that Danylovych's glasses case contained 200 grams of explosives, according to Grati, which said the activist was forced to sign a confession under torture.
After being unable to determine his client's whereabouts through Russian authorities for more than a week, lawyer Ayder Azamatov learned on May 11 that Danylovych was being held in the central city of Simferopol.
Danylovych's defense team alleges that FSB agents planted explosives on her, and that the criminal case was falsified.
Born in Belarus when it was part of the U.S.S.R., Danylovych moved to Crimea as a child and studied and gained her nursing degree there. After moving for a short time to Russia, she returned to Crimea shortly before Russia's invasion and subsequent illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.
Through her work as a nurse and the head of a doctors' union, Danylovych gained a reputation as an outspoken advocate for medical workers' rights who was not afraid to criticize local medical authorities.
After losing her job as a nurse following her role in demanding promised bonuses for medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic, she continued her advocacy for health workers as a blogger and on social media and contributed as a source to stories about the health-care system in Crimea by media outlets including RFE/RL's Russian Service's regional desk Crimea.Realities.
During a search of her home on April 29, the same day as her disappearance, her family was told that she had been detained for allegedly passing information to a nongovernmental organization.
G7 Asks China Not To Aid Russia; Demands Moscow Lift Blockade On Ukrainian Grain Exports
The Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies has called on China to support Ukrainian sovereignty and not help Russia, warning that Moscow's unprovoked war against Ukraine has threatened the globe by generating a severe food and energy crisis.
The G7 delivered the message on May 14 in a wide-ranging statement released at the end of three days of meetings in Germany.
In addition to asking China not to support Moscow amid the war, the group called on Beijing "to desist from engaging in information manipulation, disinformation and other means to legitimize Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The G7 also urged Russian ally Belarus to stop "enabling" Russia's war effort and to "abide by its international obligations."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, the G7 said, has "generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.”
The group, which comprises the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, said urgent measures were needed to unblock stores of grain that Russia is preventing Ukraine from exporting, contributing to the food crisis.
An estimated 25 million tons of grain has been prevented from leaving ports in Ukraine, one of the worlds biggest grain exporters. The blockage is seen as particularly affecting countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The G7 foreign ministers in attendance at the meeting in Weissenhaus also vowed to reinforce Russia's economic and political isolation through sanctions, and said their countries would continue to provide defense and military aid to Kyiv for "as long as necessary."
The foreign ministers also addressed Russia's efforts to gain territory in Ukraine, including its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
"We will never recognize borders Russia has attempted to change by military aggression, and will uphold our engagement in the support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, and all states," they said.
The G7 ministers also signaled their readiness to provide Kyiv with weapons for many years into the future if necessary in its fight against Russian forces.
"We will pursue our ongoing military and defense assistance to Ukraine as long as necessary," the final statement read.
The group said that phasing out purchases of Russian oil and coal is key to the efforts to put pressure on Moscow to end the war.
"We will expedite our efforts to reduce and end reliance on Russian energy supplies and as quickly as possible," the statement said.
EU member states are expected to reach an agreement next week on ending the bloc's importation of Russian oil next week, despite opposition from EU member Hungary.
With reporting by dpa, Reuters, and AP
Ukraine Says It's Launched A New Counteroffensive As Russia Moves Forces Away From Kharkiv
Ukraine's military has launched a counteroffensive near the Russian-held eastern town of Izyum as Kyiv said Kremlin forces were withdrawing from areas near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, in what appears to be the latest setback for Moscow's military offensive.
Ukraine’s General Staff said on May 14 that Russian forces appeared to be focusing on guarding supply routes and were launching mortar, artillery, and air strikes in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region in an effort to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”
Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new -- long-term -- phase of the war.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell led a delegation of Republican senators on a surprise visit to Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine in its fight against the unprovoked Russian invasion.
The McConnell-led trip, which followed one by Democratic House of Representative leaders on May 1, comes as the Senate attempts to finalize a $40 billion military aid package for Ukraine.
Outside of Ukraine, the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations reaffirmed their support for Ukraine, saying they were prepared to provide Kyiv with aid for as long as it was needed in the fight against Russian forces.
“We underscore Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, and right for self-defense under the UN Charter. This war of aggression has reaffirmed our determination to reject outright attempts to redraw borders by force in violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the G7, which consists of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan.
Kharkiv had been under heavy bombardment by Russian forces since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but it never fell. The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said in its latest assessment of the conflict on May 13 that Ukraine appears to have won the “battle of Kharkiv," noting that Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian troops from encircling, "let alone seizing," the city.
Speaking during his nightly nationwide address on May 13, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that his country's forces are making progress in their efforts to counter the Russian offensive and had retaken six towns and villages over the previous day.
However, neither side appears to be making major breakthroughs, and while Zelenskiy said that his military is doing everything it can to drive Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, "no one today can predict how long this war will last."
Zelenskiy said the outcome will depend not only on the Ukrainian people, but on "our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world."
Ukraine's top military intelligence official, Major General Kyrlyo Budanov, gave a more optimistic assessment. Budanov told Sky News on May 14 that the "breaking point will be in the second part of August" and that "most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year."
"As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost, including Donbas and Crimea," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said it was impossible to determine how long the conflict would last, claiming that the West was planning to conduct a "total hybrid war" against Russia.
He added that attempts by Western countries to isolate Russia through a slew wide-ranging sanctions were destined to fail.
Russian forces have suffered high casualties since their invasion of Ukraine in late February, and their ongoing offensive in the east of the country has made minimal territorial gains and is widely seen to be behind schedule.
But while Russia failed both in its attempts to quickly take all of Ukraine and then to encircle Ukrainian troops in besieged areas, Kyiv now sees the war entering a "third phase" in which Russian forces will seek to defend the territory they have captured.
"This shows that they plan to make it a long war," Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Viktor Andrusiv said in televised remarks on May 13. "Moscow appears to think that by dragging out the war in this way they can force the West to the negotiating table and get Ukraine to give in."
Zelenskiy said that "very difficult negotiations" with Moscow continue in an effort to evacuate Ukrainian forces from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russia's military as it tries open a land corridor to the seized territory of Crimea.
Dozens of seriously wounded Ukrainian personnel remain trapped inside the city's Azovstal metals plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the city that has been the target of a seven-week siege by Russian forces.
On May 14, the British Defense Ministry said that the civilian administration placed in charge of Ukraine's southern Kherson region by the Russian military will ask Moscow to include it into the Russian Federation.
In the event the occupied region does carry out a referendum, the British Defense Ministry said on Twitter, the vote would almost certainly be manipulated to show a clear majority of the region's population wants to leave Ukraine.
On May 11, the Zaporizhzhya Regional Military Administration in southeastern Ukraine said that Russia was not changing its war plans, which it said entail occupying Ukrainian territories and creating pseudo-republics in the southern regions.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa
Finnish President Tells Putin That Ukraine Invasion Changes His Country’s ‘Security Environment’
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has informed Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a phone call that his Nordic nation plans to apply for NATO membership, a move Putin warned his counterpart would be a mistake that could endanger the two nations’ neighborly relations.
"President Niinisto told President Putin how fundamentally the Russian demands in late 2021 aiming at preventing countries from joining NATO and Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have altered the security environment of Finland," a statement by the Finnish government said on May 14.
"The conversation was open and direct, but was conducted without escalation. It was considered important to avoid tensions," Niinisto said, according to the Finnish presidential office.
The Kremlin said Putin stressed in the call that abandoning Helsinki's traditional policy of military neutrality "would be a mistake, since there are no threats to Finland's security. Such a change in the country's foreign policy may have a negative impact on Russian-Finnish relations."
With Finland and neighboring Sweden appearing ready to apply for NATO membership, Russia said earlier on May 14 that its response to the Nordic countries joining the Western military alliance would depend on the type of NATO military infrastructure that would be located on their territory.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko told reporters in Moscow that the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO would require a strategic change, and that the Kremlin would take "adequate response measures" if NATO nuclear forces were moved closer to Russia's borders.
Grushko added that Russia has no hostile intentions toward Finland and Sweden, where support for joining NATO in the traditionally neutral countries has risen following Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. Russia has cited Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO as a key reason for launching the war.
Niinisto this week endorsed joining NATO "without delay," saying it would strengthen security in the country, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia.
The country's ruling Social Democratic Party later on May 14 announced its support for joining NATO, a step that would pave the way for applying for membership in the coming days.
The government’s decision to apply for NATO membership requires parliamentary approval, which appears highly likely.
The Swedish government has also laid out plans to commit Sweden to applying for NATO membership, and is expected to announce a decision soon.
U.S. President Joe Biden held a joint call with Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson on May 13 in which he stressed "close security and defense cooperation" and supported the two Nordic states' expected NATO bids.
"President Biden underscored his support for NATO’s Open Door policy and for the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy, and security arrangements," the White House account said of the call.
NATO's foreign ministers will meet in Berlin beginning on May 14 for two days of talks that will include Finland's and Sweden's potential membership. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto are expected to take part in the meeting, which will also include U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Many members of the alliance have already expressed support for applications from Sweden and Finland.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, said on May 13 that he did not have a "positive opinion" of the Nordic countries' membership, explaining his reservations by citing Sweden and other Scandinavian countries’ alleged support for Kurdish militants and others Turkey considers to be terrorists.
Ankara appeared to ease off in its opposition somewhat on May 14, with a top foreign policy adviser to Erdogan telling Reuters that Turkey has not shut the door to the countries' potential membership bids.
He said, though, that Ankara wants negotiations with the Nordic countries and to see them clamp down on any support for militants inside Turkey.
"We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey," Ibrahim Kalin said in an interview in Istanbul.
The potential opposition has fueled suggestions that Turkey could veto Finland's and Sweden's applications to join NATO, which to be approved would require unanimous support among the alliance's 30 member states.
Hours after Erdogan's comment, the White House and Pentagon said they were "working to clarify Turkey's position" regarding Sweden and Finland, while stressing that Ankara's standing in NATO would not change as a result of its position.
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AP
Riga City Council Votes To Dismantle Soviet Victory Monument
The city council in the Latvian capital, Riga, has agreed to dismantle a contentious Soviet monument in the city center.
The decision was made during a special session on May 13, with police surrounding the building where the meeting was held.
Most Latvians see the monument in the city center as more a symbol of the Soviet Union's occupation of Latvia than its purported purpose of honoring the liberation of the city from Germany in World War II.
It is unclear when the nearly 80-meter-tall obelisk and accompanying giant bronze statues in Riga's Victory Park will be dismantled, but the city's monument authorities have been instructed to take it down.
The issue of Soviet monuments in Latvia, which was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union until 1991, has dogged relations between Riga and Moscow.
Moscow's relationship with EU- and NATO-member Latvia has been further strained by Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine and heightened rhetoric from the Kremlin regarding the Baltic states.
Police in Riga reportedly arrested several people at an unauthorized protest against the dismantling of the monument that was staged by members of Latvia's sizeable ethnic Russian minority on May 14.
Demonstrations were also held in front of the Latvian Embassy in Moscow.
On May 12, Latvian lawmakers approved a bill that would allow the Soviet monument to be dismantled. The bill amended a 1994 agreement between Latvia and Russia on the preservation of Soviet-era monuments.
"The changed geopolitical conditions...mean that Latvia can’t and won’t be bound to preserve...monuments to the Soviet occupation," Rihards Kols, the chairman of parliament’s commission on foreign affairs, said in explaining the move.
Kols added that Latvia will continue to fulfill its international obligations regarding burials and cemeteries holding the remains of Soviet troops.
Latvia has approved many post-independence laws aimed at weeding out Russian influence and boosting the status of Latvian language and culture.
With reporting by dpa and Current Time
Number Of Ukrainian Refugees Arriving In Germany Slowing
The influx of Ukrainian refugees entering Germany has slowed to around 2,000 people a day.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said on May 14 that the number is down from a high of around 15,000 people a day in mid-March, when Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine was only weeks old.
Faeser was quoted by the Rheinische Post as saying that most of the Ukrainian refugees will eventually return to Ukraine.
However, she said, "some will stay if people see the chance to find their feet in the German labor market with their qualifications."
Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported on May 14, that more than 700,000 Ukrainian refugees have registered with the German authorities since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Around 40 percent of the Ukrainian refugees are minors, and just over 80 percent are women, according to the newspaper, which cited Interior Ministry data.
Altogether, more than 6 million Ukrainians have left their home country since the war began, according to the United Nations.
Based on dpa, UNHCR, and Reuters.
Ukrainian President Says No One Can Predict Length Of War
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that while the country's military is doing everything it can to drive Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, "no one today can predict how long this war will last."
Speaking during his nightly nationwide address on May 13, Zelenskiy said the outcome will depend not only on the Ukrainian people, but on "our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world."
Russian forces have suffered high casualties since their invasion of Ukraine in late February, and their ongoing offensive in Ukraine's east has made minimal territorial gains and is widely seen to be behind schedule.
But while Russia failed both in its attempts to quickly take all of Ukraine and then to encircle Ukrainian troops in besieged areas, Kyiv now sees the war entering a "third phase" in which Russian forces will seek to defend the territory it has captured.
"This shows that they plan to make it a long war," Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Viktor Andrusiv said in televised remarks on May 13. "Moscow appears to think that by dragging out the war in this way they can force the West to the negotiating table
and get Ukraine to give in."
Zelenskiy said that "very difficult negotiations" with Moscow continue in an effort to evacuate Ukrainian forces from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russia's military as it tries open a land corridor to the seized territory of Crimea.
Dozens of seriously wounded Ukrainian forces remain trapped inside the city's Azovstal metals plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the city that has been the target of a seven-week siege by Russian forces.
Based on reporting by AP and dpa
Iranian Filmmaker Said Held In Evin Prison Amid Reports Of Other Recent Detentions
Internationally recognized Iranian documentary filmmaker Mina Keshavarz is being held in Tehran’s Evin prison on unknown charges, a reliable source with knowledge of the case has told RFE/RL in response to questions about Keshavarz's whereabouts.
The information follows reports of security raids involving Keshavarz and another documentarist and the disappearance of another prominent Iranian, all in the past week.
Iranian authorities have not commented on the presumed arrests.
Previous reports said Keshavarz and fellow documentary filmmaker Firouzeh Khosravani were arrested on May 10 in Tehran after their homes were raided by security forces who confiscated personal belongings.
Those reports suggested Khosravani was also taken to Evin prison, where authorities routinely take political prisoners and a source of years of allegations of torture and other prisoner abuse.
On May 9, photographer Reihaneh Taravati was reportedly arrested in the Iranian capital, also on unclear charges.
Taravati had been arrested in the past, including in 2014 after appearing in an amateur video of her and other young Iranians dancing to Pharrell Williams' hit song Happy.
Iranian authorities frequently detain people without providing the public, or often families, information about their detention or specifics of their suspected wrongdoing.
Heidi Basch-Harod, executive director of the nonprofit organization Women’s Voices Now, has worked with Keshavarz.
She told RFE/RL she was worried about Keshavarz's well-being in Evin prison, where rights groups say prisoners are routinely subjected to coercion by their interrogators.
"I want no harm to come to Mina. She is an artist and filmmaker, a culture bearer who transports us to a place many of us will not have the chance to visit," Basch-Harod said.
Keshavarz has directed films like Profession: Documentarist, about seven women filmmakers; Braving The Waves, about an Iranian woman who helps other women find jobs but runs up against a corrupt local politician; and The Art Of Living In Danger, about her own grandmother's tragic life and suicide after being forced to marry at a young age.
"Mina has often expressed how frustrated she is by the inaccurate representation of women in Iran by mainstream media outlets and her work seeks to challenge those inaccurate representations," Basch-Harod said, adding that she hopes Keshavarz will be released soon to continue to create films.
Keshavarz's documentaries have been screened and awarded in several international film events, including the Women's Voices Now Film Festival and the Sarajevo Film Festival.
White House Puts 'Hostage Envoy' On WNBA Star Griner's Case As Russia Extends Pretrial Detention
The White House has accused Moscow of "wrongfully" detaining American basketball player Brittney Griner and put its envoy for hostage affairs on the case after a Russian court extended the WNBA star's pretrial custody since her detention at a Moscow airport in February.
Griner's lawyer, Aleskandr Boikov, said the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury star's custody was extended by a month by a Khimki court outside Moscow on May 13.
Griner, 31, could face a 10-year jail sentence on possible charges over traces of cannabis or hashish oil in a vape device allegedly uncovered in a security check at Sheremetyevo Airport.
Like a number of WNBA players who augment their salaries by playing in Russia in the off-season, Griner has played for the UMMC team in Yekaterinburg since 2014.
"She is OK," Boikov said of Griner after the procedural hearing on May 13, at which the court rejected her request for transfer to house arrest.
A U.S. Embassy consular officer who spoke to Griner at the hearing "was able to confirm that Brittney Griner is doing as well as can be expected under what can only be described as exceedingly difficult circumstances," State Department spokesman Ned Price added.
Price said Washington was watching Griner's case closely.
The White House said the Russian system wrongfully detained her and it was putting its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, on the case.
Griner's detention came as Washington was warning of imminent orders by Russian President Vladimir Putin for an all-out invasion of Ukraine, but was not announced until the launch of that war a week later deepened the gulf in U.S.-Russia relations.
Bilateral diplomatic channels are still open.
But there are fears that one of women's basketball's winningest players could become a bargaining chip in increasingly rancorous relations, a fact that has contributed to her family and others remaining unusually silent on the case.
Griner is now due to be held until at least June 18 as the Russian investigation continues, according to the court ruling.
Russia and the United States swapped prisoners in April, with Moscow releasing ailing former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in 2019, in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking.
Russian authorities still hold U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, another former Marine detained in 2018 on subsequent espionage charges he and the U.S. government deny.
With reporting by Reuters
Russian State Energy Company Cuts Electricity To Finland As Helsinki Readies NATO Bid
The Finnish subsidiary of Russian state-owned energy provider Inter RAO has announced a halt in electricity supplies to Finland as of May 14 over unpaid bills.
But the timing of the cutoff points to Moscow anger over its northwestern neighbor's sudden abandonment of neutrality to join the NATO alliance since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The Finnish subsidiary, RAO Nordic, said it hadn't received payments for energy provided through the Nord Pool power exchange since May 6.
"This situation is exceptional and happened for the first time in over 20 years of our trading history," RAO Nordic said.
The import cutoff will go into effect at 1 a.m. local time on May 14 (2200 GMT/UTC on May 13), according to Finnish grid operator Fingrid, which warned weeks ago of the possibility of a suspension.
Fingrid said Finnish households and other consumers were safe and that Russian power accounts for only around 10 percent of the country's consumption.
"Missing imports can be replaced in the electricity market by importing more electricity from Sweden and also by domestic production," Fingrid said.
Unprecedented sanctions against Russian financial, diplomatic, and commercial interests over the unprovoked aggression against Ukraine have crippled many trade and other flows between Russia and the West.
Last month, Russian officials announced a cutoff of natural gas supplies to EU and NATO members Poland and Romania, which have lent considerable support to Ukraine since the invasion began in late February.
It cited their refusal to pay in rubles for supplies contracted in euros or other non-Russian currencies.
RAO Nordic has cited problems collecting payments from Nord Pool, according to Fingrid.
"Nord Pool is the one paying for them. Fingrid is not a party in this electricity trade. We provide the transfer connection from Russia to Finland," Reima Paivinen, a Fingrid executive, told Reuters.
A Nord Pool spokesman confirmed that settlements had always been in euros or Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish currencies but never rubles, "in line with our standard procedures."
With reporting by Reuters
Georgian Separatist Leader Schedules July Vote On Joining Russia
The de facto leader of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia has set a date of July 17 for a referendum on uniting with Russia that is bound to be dismissed as a sham by Tbilisi and most outsiders.
Russia recognized South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia, as independent countries after fighting a brief war against Georgia in 2008. Moscow maintains thousands of troops in both regions.
"Anatoly Bibilov signed a decree on holding a referendum in the Republic of South Ossetia," the de facto leader's office said in a statement.
It cited the people's "historic aspiration" to join Russia.
Bibilov had said on March 30 that the mountainous region of around 60,000 people would take imminent measures to join Russia, which it borders.
Bibilov was defeated by the leader of the Nykhas party, Alan Gagloyev, in a May 8 runoff election for the leadership of South Ossetia in a vote that Georgia, the European Union, and the United States all dismissed as bogus.
Based on reporting by Reuters
Moscow Warns Russians Not To Travel To 'Unfriendly' Britain
Russian has warned its citizens not to travel to Britain, citing what it called London's "unfriendly course" toward Russia.
In a statement on May 13, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said that Russian citizens had been facing problems in recent days when trying to get British visas to enter the United Kingdom.
According to the ministry, the British Embassy in Moscow told Russian officials that its visa section was mainly working with visa applications filed by Ukrainian refugees, delaying the processing of visa applications filed by Russian citizens.
The ministry added that following the sanctions imposed against Russian financial institutions by the West, it is impossible to pay visa fees with VISA and Mastercard payment cards, which adds to the complexity of the process of obtaining the British visas.
Western countries slapped Russia with sanctions over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24.
"Taking into account the extremely unfriendly course of Great Britain towards our country, and to avoid financial losses and other possible problems, we recommend Russian citizens abstain, if possible, from trips to Great Britain and attempts to obtain British visas. Until the normalization of the situation, we will act in the same way towards English people," the statement said.
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