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Turkey Warns It Could Open Gates To Migrants If Pushed By EU

In March, Turkey and the European Union agreed a deal for Ankara to halt the flow of migrants to Europe -- an accord that has largely been successful in reducing numbers crossing the Aegean Sea.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Turkey could throw open its borders to illegal migrants heading to Europe, a day after the European Parliament voted for a temporary halt to EU membership talks with Ankara.

"We are the ones who feed 3-3.5 million refugees in this country. You have betrayed your promises," Erdogan said, referring to EU leaders, in a speech in Istanbul on November 25.

"If you go any further, these border gates will be opened," Erdogan added. "Neither I nor my people will be affected by these empty threats. Don't forget, the West needs Turkey."

The European Parliament voted on November 24 to freeze talks with Ankara on Turkey joining the EU. The vote was nonbinding but it underscored the increasing unease in Europe over Erdogan's tightening grip on power in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July.

More than 125,000 people accused of links to the coup plotters -- from soldiers and judges to journalists and teachers -- have been fired or detained since the July 15 coup.

Erdogan's comments prompted a swift warning from Germany that said such "threats" were unhelpful.

"If one looks at the facts, then it is the case that both sides are sticking to the agreement and we hope that remains the case, as it is in the interests of both sides," German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli told reporters in Berlin.

In March, Turkey and the European Union agreed a deal for Ankara to halt the flow of migrants to Europe -- an accord that has largely been successful in reducing numbers crossing the Aegean Sea.

According to the International Organization for Migration, over 170,000 people have crossed to Greece so far this year compared to almost 740,000 in 2015.

Under the March deal, EU leaders pledged billions in aid to Ankara, fast-track visa conditions, and possible new impetus for EU membership talks. Erdogan has repeatedly criticized what he has said is the bloc's slow progress in meeting those promises.

Turkey hosts at least 2.7 million Syrian refugees. Thousands of migrants from other countries, including Afghanistan, also use Turkey as a transit route to reach Europe.

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters

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Belarusian 'Railway Guerrillas' Handed Prison Terms

Russia has used Belarus's railway system to transport troops and equipment to Ukraine. (file photo)

BABRUYSK, Belarus --Five Belarusian activists who were arrested for allegedly damaging railways in the country to disrupt the transportation of Russian arms and troops to war-torn Ukraine have been sentenced on terrorism charges.

A court in the eastern city of Babruysk sentenced Kanstantsin Yermalovich on August 10 to 16 years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 9,600 rubles ($3,800).

Vital Mankevich was handed a 15-year prison term, and Ihar Kazlou was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

There were two women in the case, Nadzeya Polkina and Natallya Ked. Polkina was sentenced to two years in prison, while Ked was handed a parole-like two-year sentence.

The five activists were charged with carrying out a terrorist act, threatening to conduct a terrorist act, creating a terrorist group, and insulting the country's president.

They were among some 60 men and women arrested for their alleged involvement into the damaging of Belarus's railways to impede the progress of Russian troops and arms being sent into Ukraine since the start of the invasion. The other cases are still being investigated.

The campaign called "Railways War" was initiated in Belarus by a group called BYPOL. Those involved in the campaign have been nicknamed "railway guerrillas."

Belarus is not a direct participant in the war in Ukraine, but it has provided logistical support to Russia for the invasion by allowing Russian forces to enter Ukraine via Belarusian territory.

Western nations have slapped Belarus, like Russia, with an ever-increasing list of financial sanctions in response to the Kremlin's war on Ukraine, and for Belarus’s efforts to aid the Russian invasion.

In May, the country's authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, signed a controversial law amending the Criminal Code that allowed the use of the capital punishment for "attempted terrorist acts."

Iran Commander Says Naval Attack Repulsed In Red Sea

Dangerous naval encounters involving Western and Iranian militaries or commercial shippers have eased in recent years despite persistent tensions. (file photo)

A senior commander says Iran's navy repelled an attack on an Iranian vessel in the Red Sea overnight on August 9-10, but he didn't identify the type of ship or its attackers.

Rear Admiral Mustafa Tajeddini said a destroyer-led flotilla responded to a distress call "and engaged with the attacking boats."

He said the attackers "made off." The resulting damage was unclear.

Piracy and other minor incidents are not unusual in the oil-rich region, but while seizures and other more serious confrontations are less frequent they can threaten shipping on one of the world's busiest commercial cargo routes.

Dangerous naval encounters involving Western and Iranian militaries or commercial shippers have eased in recent years despite persistent tensions over sanctions-busting and influence in the region.

Tensions are still high between Iran and the United States over a hobbled nuclear deal and what Washington regards as malign activities by Tehran in the region.

Iran boosted its naval presence in the nearby Gulf of Aden after a rash of attacks by Somalia-based pirates that eased about a decade ago.

But Iranian media reported two attacks on Iranian oil tankers in the nearby Gulf of Aden late last year.

Based on reporting by AFP

Uzbekistan Warns Its Citizens Of Repercussions If They Join Russian Military In War-Torn Ukraine

According to Russian media, more than 40 military units of volunteers have been created in Russian regions and ethnic republics. (file photo)

The Uzbek Embassy in Moscow has warned the Central Asian nation's citizens residing in Russia of serious repercussions for joining Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement issued on August 10, the Embassy of Uzbekistan in the Russian Federation said any form of participation in military activities on the territory of foreign countries is considered to be mercenary activity and will be punished by up to 10 years in prison.

"The embassy calls on all our compatriots to stay away from provocations," the statement says.

The statement comes a day after the BETTA television channel in Russia's Perm region broadcast a report in which the leader of the Uzbek diaspora in the region, Jahongir Jalolov, called on Uzbeks residing in Perm to create an Uzbek battalion named after the 14th century Turkic ruler Amir Timur. Jalolov said the proposed Uzbek battalion must join Russian military forces to fight against Ukrainians.

Russian media reported earlier this week that more than 40 military units of volunteers have been created in Russian regions and ethnic republics.

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. After facing firm resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces, Moscow changed its goal in Ukraine in late March, withdrawing troops from the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and northern Ukraine, and focusing on Ukraine’s east and southeast.

EU Ban On Russian Coal Set To Go Into Effect Overnight

EU countries imported nearly 52 million tons of coal from Russia in 2021. (file photo)

An EU embargo on the import of Russian coal goes into effect on August 11 after a midnight deadline for the transition period agreed by bloc members four months ago.

The ban is part of the fifth package of EU sanctions to punish the Russian economy since President Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine in late February.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The coal embargo is the first measure among the seven rounds of EU sanctions so far to hit energy supplies, which have been particularly hard-hit along with grain exports by the Ukraine conflict.

The 120-day grace period for compliance since the approval of the coal ban in April expires at midnight on August 10.

The European Commission estimates that the coal cutoff could cost Russia around $8 billion a year.

EU countries imported nearly 52 million tons of coal from Russia in 2021, up from 41 million tons the previous year.

But overall coal imports to the EU fell by almost half from 2014 to 2020 under pressure from climate-change targets and efforts to find cleaner energy alternatives.

The EU's subsequent ban on Russian oil is slated to come into effect at the end of the year.

The EU sanctions are part of an unprecedented international response to the biggest military invasion in Europe since World War II, targeting oil and gas, SWIFT payments, overflights and travel, broadcasting, and a range of other areas.

Based on reporting by dpa

Criminal Case Launched Against Russian TV Journalist Who Protested Ukraine War On Air

Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova (file photo)

Russian authorities have launched a criminal case against TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who is known for delivering a live on-air anti-war protest in March.

She has been accused of "discrediting" the country's armed forces by publicly criticizing Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which was launched in February.

Ovsyannikova's lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said on August 10 that police broke into his client's apartment in Moscow and searched it while he was not present. He added that the journalist is accused of "publicly distributing false information about the Russian armed forces."

Ovsyannikova gained international recognition on March 14 when she burst onto the set of Channel One's Vremya news program holding a poster reading: “Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They are lying to you” in Russian. She also shouted: "Stop the war. No to war."

Ovsyannikova was a producer with Channel One at the time of her protest. She was later detained and fined 30,000 rubles ($490) by a court for calling for illegal protests.

Ovsyannikova resigned from Channel One and spent several months abroad, including in Ukraine, repeatedly expressing her condemnation of the war.

For three months she trained at the German publication Die Welt. In early July, the journalist announced her return to Russia.

On August 8, a court in Moscow ordered Ovsyannikova to pay a fine of 40,000 rubles ($660) for her latest online posts protesting the war in Ukraine.

Last week, another court in the Russian capital fined Ovsyannikova 50,000 rubles ($820) on the same charge of discrediting the military in connection with her one-person protest in front of the Kremlin in early July in which she held a poster saying "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a murderer; his soldiers are fascists" and displayed photos of children killed in Ukraine.

In March, Putin signed a law that provides for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a penalty possible of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia

U.K. Says It's Likely That Russia Has Established New Ground Corps That Leans Heavily On 'Volunteers'

Several hundred thousand Russian troops are participating in or supporting the large-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24. (file photo)

Britain says Russia has "almost certainly established a major new ground forces formation" that could include "volunteer" battalions to support its Ukrainian invasion.

The emergence of a significantly volunteer-style corps would underscore the challenges that face Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war planners as they try to subdue Russia's much smaller fellow post-Soviet republic.

British Defense Intelligence on August 10 described the new formation as the "3rd Army Corps" (3 AC) and said it was based out of Mulino, in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast east of Moscow.

The assessment came in a tweet of the Defense Ministry's latest intelligence update.

"Russia likely plans to resource a large proportion of 3 AC from newly formed 'volunteer' battalions, which are being raised across the country, and which group together recruits from the same areas," the update said.

The ministry quoted Russian regional officials as saying potential 3 AC recruits were "being offered lucrative cash bonuses once they deploy to Ukraine."

Several hundred thousand Russian troops are participating in or supporting the large-scale invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, following eight years of Russian support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Western military analysts have argued that Putin and his military and intelligence services expected a quick victory that has not materialized.

Since failing to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, early in the invasion, Russian commanders have suggested that they are concentrating their forces on territory in the east and south of Ukraine.

"Russian commanders highly likely continue to be faced with the competing operational priorities of reinforcing the Donbas offensive [in eastern Ukraine], and strengthening defenses against anticipated Ukrainian counterattacks in the south," the U.K. Defense Intelligence update said.

U.S. defense officials recently estimated that 70,000-80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the fighting.

The Ukrainian government has previously said that 100 to 200 of its troops are being killed daily.

Russian Shelling Said To Have Killed 13 Civilians in Dnipropetrovsk, Kilometers From Nuclear Plant

Dnipropetrovsk's State Administration head, Valentyn Reznichenko, described August 9-10 as a 'terrible night.'

The governor of Ukraine's central Dnipropetrovsk region says 13 civilians were killed by Russian shelling overnight in Nikopol and Marhanets, and 11 more people injured, five of them seriously.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Dnipropetrovsk's State Administration head, Valentyn Reznichenko, said two of the victims died at Marhanets Hospital despite efforts to save them.

Reznichenko described the scene of the attacks, on the Kakhovka Reservoir of the Dnieper River in south-central Ukraine, in a burst of Telegram posts early on August 10.

"We had a terrible night.... We have 11 dead.... All peaceful people who had plans for life today," Reznichenko wrote. He later revised the death toll to 13.

"It is very difficult to get bodies from under the rubble," he added.

The areas that were reportedly struck are about 20 kilometers away and on the opposite side of the Dnieper from the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant that was seized early in the five-month-old invasion and has been shelled several times in the past week, sparking intense international concern.

Marhanets was worst hit, the governor said, with 20 multiple-story buildings damaged including schools, a dormitory, and a cultural center.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on August 8 for international inspectors to be given access to the Zaporizhzhya plant after Ukraine and Russia traded accusations over the recent shelling of the facility.

"Any attack on a nuclear plant is a suicidal thing," Guterres said.

Armenian Readies Delayed Census For October

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's government announced that census-taking will take place from October 13 to October 22. (file photo)

Armenian authorities say that in October they will conduct the Caucasus nation's first census in more than a decade and only its third since post-Soviet independence, following two postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Questionnaires will be filled out electronically for the first time.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's government announced that census-taking will take place from October 13 to October 22, with its results to be summarized within a year.

Authorities plan to spend about 1.5 billion drams ($3.7 million) on the census, and the enumeration will include visits to households and other means of data collection.

Armenia took its previous two population censuses in 2001 and 2011. It planned to conduct its third population census in 2020, but had to postpone it first until 2021 and then until 2022 because of the pandemic.

“Electronic questionnaires will be filled in with the use of tablets. This is new for us," Vardan Gevorkian, the head of the population census department of Armenia’s Statistics Committee, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.

Answering questions during a population census in Armenia is mandatory under the law.

Citizens will be asked a total of 39 questions, including about their marital status, education, occupation, health, housing conditions, their main sources of income, and so on.

The census will also include questions about the availability of a second citizenship and the place of permanent residence of absent family members.

According to the 2011 population census, Armenia had a population of a little more than 3 million people, down by around 200,000 people from the results of 10 years previously.

Crimea In Spotlight After Airfield Blasts, As Russians Focus On South And Ukrainians On Northeast

Smoke rises after explosions were heard at an air base near Novofedorivka in Crimea on August 9.

Speculation continued over the cause of major explosions at a Russian airfield in Crimea, while reports overnight on August 9-10 suggested Russian troops were concentrating on a southern region and Ukrainians reported minor successes around Kharkiv, in the northeast.

Meanwhile assessments of the fighting from Ukrainian and Western military sources indicate that battle lines have become increasingly entrenched as the five-month-old conflict grinds on, with advances mostly limited on either side.

Speaking in his nightly video address on August 9, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy avoided any specific reference to the dozen or so blasts that reportedly killed one person at the military airport in Crimea.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

But he vowed to reverse Moscow's 2014 annexation of the peninsula and to retake the it from Russia by the end of the war.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation,” Zelenskiy said. “Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”

Crimea has so far escaped heavy fighting, and officials in Moscow have warned Ukraine that any attack there would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centers” in Kyiv.

The Russian Defense Ministry indicated in a statement that the Saky airfield was not targeted in an attack and that the detonation of aviation ammunition caused the explosions, which reportedly killed one person, without clarifying who or what triggered the blasts.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said it "cannot establish the cause of the fire, but once again reminds about the rules of fire safety and the prohibition of smoking in unspecified places," hinting at an accident at the facility.

But The New York Times quoted an unnamed "senior Ukrainian military official with knowledge of the situation" as saying that Ukrainian forces were behind the Crimea explosions.

It said the official declined to specify what type of weapon caused them but said "a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used."

The source also suggested that the Saky air base, on Crimea's western coast, was routinely used to launch air attacks on Ukrainian forces.

RFE/RL could not independently confirm the Times' reporting.

A Ukrainian military expert told Current Time that Kyiv "theoretically" has weapons that could have reached Saky.

Reports of fighting suggest that Russia is concentrating its main troop activities in the southern Kherson region, while the Ukrainians claimed to be making minor gains in the Kharkiv region.

Russian forces were said to have shelled the northeastern city of Kharkiv overnight on August 9-10, damaging infrastructure but causing no casualties.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said that at least four explosions had sounded through the night, including one near a building that "has nothing to do with military infrastructure."

The Ukrainian Army's General Staff said late on August 9 that "Russians continue to attempt to attack in different parts of the hundred-kilometer front in eastern Ukraine, from the outskirts of Seversk to the outskirts of Donetsk."

It cited Russian tactical offensives in Yakovlevka, Bakhmut, and Zaitsev, and said Ukrainian defenders had beat back an enemy offensive in Spornoye, near Seversk.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Current Time, and The New York Times

U.S. Pledges $89 Million To Help Ukraine Clear Land Mines Left By Russian Forces

The money will support 100 demining teams and also help provide training and equipment necessary to clear land mines and unexploded ordnance for a year. (file photo)

The United States says it will provide $89 million to Ukraine for removing land mines put in place by Russian forces.

The money will support 100 demining teams and also help provide training and equipment necessary to clear land mines and unexploded ordnance for a year.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"Russia's unlawful and unprovoked further invasion of Ukraine has littered massive swaths of the country with land mines, unexploded ordnance, and improvised explosive devices," the U.S. State Department said on August 9 in a statement.

The “grotesque” use of improvised explosive devices by the Russians in Ukraine was previously only associated with Islamic State in Syria, the statement said.

"These explosive hazards block access to fertile farmland, delay reconstruction efforts, prevent displaced communities from returning to their homes, and continue to kill and maim innocent Ukrainian civilians," it said.

The Russians left a large number of mines and other explosive devices behind when they were forced to withdraw from northern Ukraine after the failure of the initial thrust of the invasion to seize Kyiv.

Since late March Kyiv has defused around 160,000 mines, but some 5 million Ukrainians still live in areas threatened by bombs planted by the Russians, according to the State Department.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Two More Cargo Ships Carrying Grain Leave Ukrainian Port Near Odesa

The Ocean Lion cargo ship makes its way from port near Odesa on August 9.

Two more cargo ships carrying grain have left Ukraine, the Infrastructure Ministry announced on August 9.

The ships were to travel across the Black Sea in a convoy headed toward the Bosphorus under a deal with Russia to ease agricultural exports from Ukrainian ports.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The ministry said on Facebook that the two ships departed from Chornomorsk, south of Odesa, carrying a total of 70,000 tons of grain and food. It said that one of the ships, the Rahmi Yaggi, was bound for Turkey with 5,300 tons of products, while the other, the Ocean Lion, was carrying some 65,000 tons of corn to South Korea.

With the departures a total of 12 ships have left three different Ukrainian Black Sea ports under the deal between Russia and Ukraine brokered late last month by the United Nations and Turkey.

Exports from Ukraine -- one of the world's biggest grain producers -- had been halted by a Russian naval blockade and the Ukrainian mining of the ports.

The halt of grain shipments from Ukraine contributed to a spike in global food prices and caused concern about countries in the Middle East and Africa receiving enough grain and other commodities to feed their populations.

The resumption of grain exports is being overseen by a Joint Coordination Center (JCC) in Istanbul where Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN personnel are working.

The first ship to depart Ukraine under the deal brokered by the UN and Turkey reached its destination, Lebanon, on August 7, but the buyer refused the shipment citing a five-month delay, the Ukrainian Embassy in Lebanon said.

The ship was looking for another consignee to unload its cargo in Lebanon or any other country or port. It was off the coast of Turkey on August 9, according to the website MarineTraffic.

With reporting by AFP

Ukrainian Military Reports Heavy Fighting Along Front Line In Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers jump from a pickup truck to take up positions at the front line in the Mykolayiv region.

Heavy fighting was reported on August 9 in frontline towns of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region as Russian troops launched waves of attacks to try to expand their control of the Donbas.

Kyiv said its troops were putting up fierce resistance and largely holding the line.

Russian troops tried to storm in several directions in the Donetsk region, the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in a battlefield assessment issued on the evening of August 9.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"In the Donetsk direction, the enemy, with the support of aviation, is trying to conduct assault actions in the Bakhmut and Avdiyiv directions,” the General Staff report said.

Russian forces were continuing with the "systematic shelling of positions along the contact line” to constrain the actions of Ukrainian units and prevent them from regrouping, it said.

Shelling was reported in the direction of Kramatorsk and Bakhmut, cities north of Donetsk city, while the General Staff said there was an unsuccessful attempt to storm Russian troops in the Spirniy region of Donetsk, one of the two eastern regions where Russia-backed separatists have held large swaths of territory for the past eight years.

Russian troops tried to involve intelligence groups in several districts north of Donetsk city but retreated after being hit by fire from Ukrainian defenders, the report said.

They were also unsuccessful in carrying out combat reconnaissance in the areas of Pidgorodne north of Dnipro and Bakhmut, the report says.

According to the General Staff, Russian units had "partial success" in the direction of the village of Vershina, but have not been able to improve the tactical position in the directions of Bakhmut and other cities north of Donetsk city.

Russia said its forces had captured a factory for Moscow on the edge of the eastern town of Soledar.

Other Russian-backed forces said they were in the process of "clearing out" the heavily fortified village of Pisky. And Russian media reported that a group of mercenaries from the Vagner Group had dug in near Bakhmut.

It was not possible to verify either side's battlefield accounts.

Russia has been "reinforcing defenses" in southern Ukraine while keeping up attacks on Ukrainian positions in the eastern Donetsk region, but has only managed to advance about 10 kilometers in the past month on its "most successful axis" there, according to U.K. military intelligence.

In its regular assessment earlier on August 9, British Defense Intelligence said Russian forces had not advanced more than three kilometers elsewhere in Donetsk.

Such a pace is "almost certainly significantly less than planned," Defense Intelligence added.

"Despite its continued heavy use of artillery in these areas, Russia has not been able to generate capable combat infantry in sufficient numbers to secure more substantial advances," it said.

British intelligence previously warned on August 8 that Russia was using anti-personnel mines in an effort to defend and hold its defense lines, with resulting risks to both the military and local civilian populations.

In Crimea, Moscow-imposed authorities said explosions hit a military airport near the village of Novofedorivka, killing one person and injuring several others.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the detonation of aviation ammunition caused the explosions without clarifying who or what triggered the blasts.

The ministry's statement implied the airfield was not targeted in an attack and said that no one was injured.

Meanwhile, the United States said it would provide $89 million to Ukraine for removing land mines put in place by Russian forces. The money will support 100 demining teams as well as training and equipment necessary to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance for a year.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Updated

Biden Signs U.S. Ratification Document On NATO Membership For Sweden, Finland

U.S. President Joe Biden -- alongside Vice President Kamala Harris (left), Swedish Ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter (second from right), and Finnish Ambassador to Washington Mikko Hautala -- signs ratification documents for the Nordic countries to join NATO in Washington on August 9.

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed ratification documents endorsing bids by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Biden said the two Nordic countries’ expected entry into the alliance once they receive the backing of all 30 members will be “a watershed moment” for NATO and “for the greater security and stability not only of Europe and the United States but of the world."

Biden signed the documents -- formally called the instrument of ratification -- in a ceremony at the White House on August 9.

Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. They completed accession talks with the alliance just last month.

The U.S. Senate backed the expansion by a vote of 95-1 last week. Both Democrats and Republicans strongly approved the measure, describing Sweden and Finland as important allies whose modern militaries already worked closely with NATO.

Biden said the two countries would become "strong, reliable highly capable new allies" by making the "sacred commitment" to mutual defense in the transatlantic alliance.

Biden handed the pens he used to sign the documents to Sweden's ambassador to the U.S., Karin Olofsdotter, and Finland's ambassador to the U.S., Mikko Hautala, who witnessed the signing along with members of Congress and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden said Finland and Sweden both have "strong democratic institutions, strong militaries, and strong and transparent economies" that would now bolster NATO.

He also praised NATO as "the foundation of American security" and said the United States is committed to it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's Russia on the other hand "shattered peace and security in Europe" by invading Ukraine. "Putin thought he could break us apart…Instead, he is getting exactly what he did not want."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States appreciates the swift action of the NATO allies that have already ratified the accession protocols "and encourages all to complete the process soon."

As of last week seven member countries -- the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Turkey -- had yet to formally agree to the entry of the two countries. Only Turkey has formally raised a challenge, demanding certain concessions from Finland and Sweden to back their memberships.

Blinken also said the commitment among NATO members to Article 5 of the organization's founding treaty remains "ironclad."

Article 5 says NATO members must consider an attack on one member of the alliance as an attack on all, committing each member to defend all others in what NATO calls a spirit of solidarity within the alliance.

"Allies are united in their shared mission to defend the Euro-Atlantic community, deter aggression, project stability, and uphold NATO’s values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law," Blinken said. "We also remain firmly committed to NATO’s Open Door policy and to further strengthening our bilateral defense and security cooperation."

Russia cited Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO as a key reason for launching the war in February. Putin said in May that, while Russia does not see Finland and Sweden's decision to join NATO as a threat, deployment of military infrastructure in the countries may trigger a response from Moscow.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

U.S. Calls For 'Immediate Steps' To Reduce Tensions In Nagorno-Karabakh

U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Courtney E. Austrian (file photo)

Washington is closely following the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and urges immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation, the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on August 9.

In a statement delivered to the OSCE Special Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. mission Chargé d’Affaires Courtney E. Austrian also said that “the United States expresses its deep concern over the reports of intensive fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, including casualties and the loss of life.”

“We are closely following the situation [in Nagorno-Karabakh] and urge immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation,” Austrian said.

“As we have said many times at the Permanent Council, the United States emphasizes the importance of a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” she added.

The diplomat noted that last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken personally engaged Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev “to urge de-escalation and direct contacts to reduce tensions.”

“The United States is ready to engage bilaterally, with like-minded partners, and through our role as an OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair to facilitate dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and help achieve a long-term political settlement to the conflict,” Austrian said.


At least one Azerbaijani and two ethnic Armenian soldiers were killed during the most recent escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, which took place on August 1-3. The two sides blame each other for the violence.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years.

The mostly Armenian-populated region, which had the status of an autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan, declared its independence from Baku amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, triggering a 1992-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The war ended in a Russia-brokered cease-fire, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians in control of most of the region as well as several adjacent districts of Azerbaijan proper.

Internationally mediated negotiations with the involvement of the OSCE Minsk Group -- co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France -- failed to result in a resolution before another large-scale war broke out in September 2020.

The 44-day conflict, which killed more than 6,500 people, ended in a Moscow-brokered cease-fire with Azerbaijan regaining control of all districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as large swaths of territory inside the former autonomous oblast itself.

Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the region to oversee the truce.

With reporting by By Heghine Buniatyan

Russian Border Guards Set Up Road Checkpoints In Southern Armenia

After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the Russian Federal Security Service's Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Yerevan to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses. (file photo)

Citing increased drug trafficking and other illegal cross-border activities, Russian border guards controlling Armenia’s frontier with Iran have set up checkpoints along several roads in the country’s southern Syunik Province.

Images of the checkpoints along the road linking Meghri to other towns appeared on the Internet earlier this week, raising speculation about possible preparations for the opening of transit routes for Azerbaijan via the strategic mountainous region.

Syunik is the Armenian province through which Azerbaijan expects to get a highway and railroad connection with its western exclave of Nakhichevan under the terms of the Russia-brokered 2020 cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the terms of that arrangement, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is to ensure the security of traffic along transport routes in Armenia for Azerbaijan.

Yerevan insists that it should maintain sovereignty over the roads, while Baku is seeking an extraterritorial status for them amounting to a corridor similar to the Russian-controlled Lachin corridor that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.

At a government session on August 4, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian again implicitly rejected the corridor logic for the unblocking of regional transport routes, saying that Azerbaijan even today can use all parts of Armenia, not only Syunik, for transit purposes in accordance with Armenian legislation.

“We have been saying all the while that we are ready to provide this connection between the western districts of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. We are ready to ensure this connection even today, but it is Azerbaijan that does not use these opportunities offered by us,” Pashinian said.

Pashinian spoke after the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in which at least two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier were killed in fresh fighting near the Lachin corridor where Russian peacekeepers are deployed under the terms of the 2020 cease-fire.


Amid the escalation, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that several Armenian villages along the current corridor would be evacuated until September when Armenians are to start using an alternative road connecting Armenia and the Armenian-populated region.

Bagrat Zakarian, the mayor of Meghri, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on August 9 that the Russian checkpoints recently spotted in Syunik were actually set up several months ago. In total, he said, five such checkpoints were placed at roads leading from Meghri to several towns and villages in Syunik.

After media reports about the installation of new Russian checkpoints near Meghri, the FSB Border Guards Department in Armenia explained that it was done in coordination with Armenian authorities to prevent smuggling, illegal migration, and other offenses.

According to the FSB, a tense situation has been observed recently at the Meghri section of the Armenian-Iranian state border due to increased attempts to smuggle drugs from Iran to Armenia. Violations of the border by representatives of extremist and terrorist groups were also recorded.

Armenian government officials have not yet commented on the presence of Russian checkpoints along the roads in Syunik.

Meghri’s mayor acknowledged that the checkpoints create certain problems for local tourism.

“Tourists have to go through passport control procedures before they can visit several rural areas here,” Zakarian said.

With reporting by Artak Khulian

On Second Anniversary Of Disputed Belarusian Presidential Poll, Tsikhanouskaya Names 'Interim Cabinet'

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (center) and her "transitional cabinet" Valer Sakhashchyk (left), Alyaksandr Azarau (second from left), Paval Latushka (second from right) and Valer Kavaleuski (composite file photo)

VILNIUS -- On the second anniversary of the disputed presidential election in Belarus, exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom many consider the winner of the August 2020 vote, has named an interim government of the country.

Tsikhanouskaya said on August 9, the final day of a two-day conference of Belarusian democratic movements and groups held in Vilnius, Lithuania, that many opposition figures had demanded that she create "a united interim government" and she said she has now established one.

The interim government consists of Paval Latushka, who is responsible for the transition of power, Alyaksandr Azarau, who will take care of the restoration of law and order, Valer Kavaleuski, who will focus on foreign affairs, and Valer Sakhashchyk who will represent the interim government on issues related to defense and national security, Tsikhanouskaya said. She also called on all Belarusians who want to contribute to the transition of Belarus to a democratic country to join her team.

After the presidential election on August 9, 2020, Belarus was hit by a wave of protests against the results of the poll, which handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka despite claims by opposition leaders that the vote was rigged.

Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or have been forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with opponents of his regime.

Security officials have cracked down hard on any dissent against Lukashenka's rule, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists, some of whom are RFE/RL correspondents.

Several protesters have been killed, and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture by security officials against some of those detained.

Belarusian authorities have also shuttered several media outlets, including the Polish-funded Belsat television channel, the popular Nasha Niva newspaper, the Minsk office of RFE/RL, and dozens of regional publications for their independent coverage of Lukashenka's regime.

On August 9, RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly again condemned the imprisonment of RFE/RL correspondents in Belarus who were arrested over their coverage of the disputed poll and its aftermath.

“Two years ago, Alyaksandr Lukashenka stole not only an election, but the futures of our colleagues Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk,” Fly said in a statement.

“We condemn the Belarusian government’s relentless campaign to criminalize independent media, and demand the immediate release of our journalists imprisoned for reporting the truth.”

The European Union, the United States, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and a brutal police crackdown.

Tsikhanouskaya, 39, emerged as the face of the opposition to Lukashenka after facing off against the strongman because her husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, had been detained to prevent him from running. He is serving an 18-year prison sentence.

Russia Extradites Belarusian Activist Despite Torture Fears

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized Yana Pinchuk as a political prisoner and demanded her immediate release. (file photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Russian authorities have extradited activist Yana Pinchuk back to her native Belarus where she faces charges for protesting the disputed August 2020 presidential election that kept authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in power despite opposition accusations that the voting was rigged.

Pinchuk supporters said on August 9 that she was extradited to Belarus.

Pinchuk's lawyer, Maria Belyayeva, confirmed the supporters' statement, adding that her client’s exact current whereabouts are unknown.

In former Soviet countries, convicts and suspects are usually transferred in special trains, and the transfer may last for weeks or even months as the transported individuals stop for an uncertain time in detention centers in towns and cities they pass.

Last month, a court in Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, upheld the decision to extradite Pinchuk even after the 25-year-old activist said she may face torture if returned to custody in Belarus.

Pinchuk is wanted in Belarus on several charges, including inciting national hatred, calls for activities that damaged national security, and slander. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Police in St. Petersburg arrested Pinchuk on November 1 last year at the request of Belarus.

Belarusian authorities accuse Pinchuk of administering the Vitsebsk97% Telegram channel, which had been critical of Lukashenka's regime and has been labeled as extremist in Belarus.

Pinchuk has rejected all of the charges saying she immediately closed the Telegram channel after it was officially designated as extremist.

She is one of many Belarusians who have faced multiple charges linked to the mass protests following Lukashenka's contested reelection.

Thousands have been arrested and much of the opposition leadership has been jailed or forced into exile. Several protesters have been killed and there have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown.

Belarusian authorities have also shut down several nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets.

The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the crackdown.

In December, the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Pinchuk as a political prisoner and demanded her immediate release.

EU Envisions 'Very Quick' Responses On 'Final Text' Of Iran Nuclear Deal

EU top negotiator Enrique Mora (left) sits with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani during the latest round of talks in Vienna.

The European Union says that the United States and Iran are likely to respond "very quickly" to a "final text" that has emerged to revive a crippled nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

EU foreign policy chief and negotiations coordinator Josep Borrell said on August 8 that the 25-page draft had been delivered to the capitals involved for decisions on acceptance.

"We have a final text. So it's the moment for a decision: yes or no. And we expect all participants to take this decision very quickly," Peter Stano, Borrell's spokesman, told reporters on August 9.

"There is no more space for negotiations," Stano said.

A State Department spokesman has said that the United States is ready to "quickly conclude a deal" to revive the 2015 agreement based on the EU proposals.

The spokesman said Washington will wait to see if Tehran's "actions match their words" following repeated signals that Iranian officials might endorse the deal.

Iran has said it is considering the draft amid "more comprehensive discussions in Tehran."

Enrique Mora, the European Union’s top negotiator, has said he's “absolutely” optimistic about the talks’ progress.

Iran struck the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China. The deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of UN inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Washington unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear pact under then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Iran reacted by gradually backtracking on its obligations under the deal, such as uranium enrichment.

Negotiators from Iran, Russia, and the EU -- as well as the United States, indirectly -- resumed talks over Tehran’s nuclear deal on August 4 after a monthslong standstill in negotiations.

Based on reporting by Reuters
Updated

Explosions Hit Military Airport In Ukraine's Russia-Annexed Crimea, Killing One Person

The explosions occurred at a military airfield near the village of Novofedorivka.

Moscow-imposed authorities in Ukraine's Crimea that was illegally annexed by Russia say explosions hit a military airport near the village of Novofedorivka, killing one person.

The Russian-appointed head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, wrote on Telegram on August 9 that one person was killed and expressed condolences to the victim's relatives. He did not identify the victim.

Meanwhile, local health officials said that five people, including one child, were injured.


The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement earlier that the detonation of aviation ammunition caused the explosions, without clarifying who or what triggered the blast.

The ministry's statement implied that the airfield was not targeted in an attack and said that no one was injured.

The primary cause appeared to be a “violation of fire safety requirements,” the ministry said, according to an unidentified ministry source quoted by TASS. The ministry said no warplanes were damaged.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said it did not know what caused the explosions but suggested that Russia may use the incident as propaganda.

An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was not taking responsibility for the explosions.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, asked by the Dozhd online television channel whether Kyiv was taking responsibility, replied: "Of course not. What do we have to do with this?"

Zelenskiy responded to the attack by vowing to retake Crimea from Russia.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea -- its liberation,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. “Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”


Last week, five Russian Navy staff members were wounded by an explosion after a presumed drone flew into the courtyard of Russia's Black Sea fleet in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.

Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Dozens Of Iranian Activists Condemn Islamic Republic's Oppression Of Baha'i Community

Buildings belonging to Baha'is in Roshankooh, northern Iran, are destroyed earlier this month.

A group of 70 political and civil activists, university professors, artists, and human rights activists from Ian and abroad have condemned in a joint statement the Islamic Republic's treatment of the Baha'i community following a spike in restrictions and pressure on its members.

"The arbitrary suppression and arrest of Baha'i citizens in various cities has intensified in recent days as more Baha'i students have been deprived of education," the signatories said.

"These crimes are part of the chain of tyranny and the attempt to destroy and eliminate religious minorities and dissidents."

Baha'is -- who number some 300,000 in Iran and have an estimated 5 million followers worldwide -- say they face systematic persecution in Iran, where their faith is not officially recognized in the constitution.

Iranian security forces have arrested dozens of Baha'i followers in recent weeks and raided the homes of hundreds of others.

Among the signatories of the statement are Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and Iranian-American movie star Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, hundreds of Baha'is have been arrested and jailed for their beliefs. At least 200 have been executed or were arrested and never heard from again.

Thousands more have been banned from receiving higher education or had their property confiscated, while vandals often desecrate Baha'i cemeteries.


The statement said the ruling autocratic ideology of Iran is the result of religious apartheid, which has deprived millions of Baha'is of their civil rights because of their religious beliefs.

Iran' Ministry of Intelligence accused a number of Baha'is who were arrested recently that they are "directly connected with the Zionist center known as Bayt al-Adl located in occupied Palestine."

Bayt al-Adl (The Universal House of Justice), located in Haifa, is the nine-member supreme ruling body of the Baha'i Faith.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has on several occasions called the Baha'i faith a cult and issued a religious fatwa in 2018 forbidding contact, including business dealings, with followers of the faith.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Russia Says Ukraine Suspended Oil Flows To Europe Due To Sanctions

Transneft says that the situation had affected deliveries to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. (file photo)

Ukraine has suspended Russian oil flows to three European nations as of August 4 because the transit payment cannot be processed due to sanctions, Russia's pipeline monopoly company said.

Transneft said on August 9 that the situation had affected deliveries to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

According to the company, it made payments for the August oil transit to Ukraine's pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta on July 22, but the payment did not go through and, therefore, the money bounced back.

Gazprombank, which handled the payment, said the money was returned because of European Union restrictions, adding that oil deliveries to Poland and Germany via Belarus were under way "as usual."

Russia has already reduced gas pipeline flows to many EU member-states, citing problems with turbine maintenance on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline as well as sanctions against some buyers whom Moscow has officially recognized as "unfriendly."

Since the Kremlin launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, cutting the country off from international financial institutions.

The European Union has been looking for ways to reduce its dependence on Russian energy resources and has agreed to ban more than two-thirds of Russian oil imports.

The United States banned Russian oil and gas days after Russia launched its wide-scale aggression against Ukraine.

Based on Reporting by Interfax, TASS, Reuters, and AFP

Kremlin Lashes Out At European Leaders For Supporting Visa Ban For All Russians

Barring all Russians would also impact the tens of thousands of people who have left that country out of protest or disagreement with the actions of Putin and his administration. 

The Kremlin has lashed out at European critics including leaders of EU states and besieged Ukraine over their calls for all Russians to be banned from the West until their country ends its invasion of Ukraine along with the underlying mindset.

The sharp response follows encouragement by the Finnish and Estonian prime ministers for a ban on visas to Russians and news that the French military has banned Russian nationals from a medieval fortress and touristic site outside Paris that houses military archives.

Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of troops and civilians since it was launched in late February, sparked unprecedented financial and other sanctions, flight and airspace bans, and contributed to a global food crisis.

Some EU countries, including Latvia, have already stopped issuing visas to Russians, citing the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose defiant leadership has included nightly video messages imploring international assistance, this week urged the West to ban all Russians to discourage Moscow from trying to annex more territory.

Zelenskiy told The Washington Post that "whichever kind of Russian" should be made to "go to Russia."

But Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on August 9 that "the irrationality of thinking" behind calls for such bans "is off the charts."

Amid increasing tensions with the West, poisonings abroad allegedly ordered by senior Russian officials, and the creep of Russian troops and proxy fighters from Georgia to Ukraine to Syria and central Africa, Putin and other Russian officials have complained of growing "Russophobia."

Peskov said the fresh calls to ban Russians "can only be viewed extremely negatively" and warned that "any attempt to isolate Russians or Russia is a process that has no prospects."

EU members and Russia neighbors Finland and Estonia have hinted they're willing to try a visa ban.

Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin told Finnish broadcaster YLE on August 8 that "it is not right that while Russia is waging an aggressive, brutal war of aggression in Europe, Russians can live a normal life, travel in Europe, be tourists."

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas followed with a call for countries to "stop issuing tourist visas to Russians."

"Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right," Kallas tweeted. "Air travel from RU is shut down. It means while Schengen countries issue visas, neighbors to Russia carry the burden (FI, EE, LV – sole access points). Time to end tourism from Russia now."

Barring all Russians would also impact the tens of thousands of people who have left that country out of protest or disagreement with the actions of Putin and his administration.

"They'll understand then," the Ukrainian president told The Washington Post. "They'll say, 'This [war] has nothing to do with us. The whole population can't be held responsible, can it?' It can. The population picked this government and they're not fighting it, not arguing with it, not shouting at it."

"Don't you want this isolation?" Zelensky added, speaking as if he were addressing Russians directly. "You're telling the whole world that it must live by your rules. Then go and live there. This is the only way to influence Putin."

The French military has imposed a ban on Russians visiting the storied Chateau de Vincennes, once the residence of French kings and a venue for tours and concerts as well as part of the French armed forces' historical archives.

AFP quoted two Russian women denied entry by French guards after showing their documents and being told they couldn't get in "because you're Russian."

Putin has spent the decades since taking office in 1999 consolidating and otherwise tightening the country's grip on media, including strictures in the past decade like laws on "foreign agents" and "undesirable" designations to punish activists, journalists, and any other perceived enemies.

Since the full-scale war in Ukraine was launched, criminal procedures and other punishments have been imposed for criticism of the Russian military or even just describing the conflict as a war, rather than the Kremlin's preferred term, a "special military operation."

With reporting by AFP and AP

Putin, Israeli Counterpart Discuss Jewish Agency Case In Call

Israeli President Isaac Herzog was chairman of the Jewish Agency before he took over as president. (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli President Isaac Herzog discussed the strained relations between their countries and the situation of the Jewish Agency in Russia in a phone call on August 9.

The Russian Justice Ministry has moved to disband the agency's Russian arm, which promotes emigration to Israel, despite protests from Israel.

Russia accuses the organization of violating the country's laws and, according to media reports, unlawfully collecting personal data from Russian citizens.

Some Israelis have seen this as retribution for Israel's criticism of Russia's military campaign in Ukraine.

The case against the Jewish Agency is due to be heard on August 19.

The discussion was "open and honest," Herzog's office said, adding that Herzog spoke at length about the activities of the agency.

Herzog was chairman of the Jewish Agency before he took over as president.

"The two presidents emphasized the important areas of cooperation between Israel and Russia, and agreed to stay in touch," Herzog's office announced.

Putin, he said, had stressed his personal commitment to remembrance of the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the phone call also touched upon the Jewish Agency. Both sides had agreed that "contacts on this will continue along the responsible authorities of both countries," he said.

Peskov rejected reports that the dissolution of the organization was intended to prevent the departure of bright minds from Russia.

Based on reporting by dpa and Reuters

Bulgarian Court Orders Extradition Of Russian Protester Over Tax-Evasion Charge

A protest against Aleksei Alchin's extradition to Russia took place outside the district court in Varna on August 8.

A Bulgarian court has ordered the extradition of a Russian man accused at home of large-scale tax evasion in a case complicated by the suspect's burning of his Russian passport during an antiwar protest in the Black Sea resort of Varna.

The suspect, 46-year-old Aleksei Alchin, has argued that Russian authorities are persecuting him for his political leanings and criticism of Russia's war on Ukraine.

Alchin says he has been living in Bulgaria for five years.

He was declared a fugitive by Russian prosecutors in April 2018 following an investigation into alleged tax evasion.

He took part in a protest in Bulgaria two days after the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24 in which he demonstratively burned his Russian passport.

Months later, Bulgarian authorities were notified by Russian officials that Alchin was the target of an international manhunt and a formal extradition request followed.

He was detained by Bulgarian authorities last week and his extradition case was heard on August 8 by a district court in Varna, in eastern Bulgaria.

Alchin's wife, friends, and others protested outside the court for his release.

But the court ruled that the tax-evasion charges against him were of a sufficient magnitude to warrant his extradition.

Through its press service, the Bulgarian court also cited an assurance from a Russian deputy prosecutor-general, Pyotr Gorodov, that Alchin won't be tortured or otherwise abused and that he will be allowed counsel.

Russia's heavily prosecutor-friendly legal system leads to convictions in around 99 percent of all cases, and allegations are widespread of detainee and inmate abuse.

The Varna court also cited a guarantee by Russian prosecutors that Alchin will only be investigated for tax evasion and that, if he is convicted, he will be allowed to leave Russia after serving any possible sentence.

Alchin can appeal the first-instance ruling within seven days.

It is unclear what sort of leverage officials in Bulgaria -- a NATO and EU member whose relations with Moscow have markedly worsened since Russia's military invaded Ukraine -- might have if Russian authorities abandon their pledges concerning Alchin.

Alchin requested political asylum in Bulgaria only after being detained in connection with the extradition request, which prosecutors said hurt his chances of success.

Russian authorities have sought him internationally since February 2020.

Alchin has described past employment in Russia that includes work for a State Duma committee that he says he left "due to the high level of corruption in the system."

He said he fled Russia after being warned that his metals company had attracted interest from elites and he might be accused of tax crimes.

He also said he'd never received any subpoenas, as lawyers he approached before fleeing came under "pressure" and refused to represent his interests.

Belarus Air Force Starts Exercises At Home And At Russian Base

Paratroopers attend a military exercises at the Ashuluk military base in southern Russia. (file photo)

Belarus' air force is holding exercises on its territory and at a military training base in Russia, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on August 9.

According to the ministry, the drills involve live fire and are to be held in two phases: the first from August 9 to August 11 in Belarus, while the second one on August 22-25 will take place at Russia's Ashuluk military training base located in Russia's southwest near the border with Kazakhstan.

Belarus' authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has openly supported Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that was launched in late February.

Although Belarusian troops have not taken part in the invasion, Belarusian authorities allowed Russia's military to use the country's territory to enter Ukraine and shell Ukrainian towns and cities from Belarus.

Based on reporting by Interfax, TASS, and Reuters

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