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Ukraine Accuses Russia Of Deliberately Delaying Black Sea Grain Exports

Ships loading grain dock at the port in Odesa. (file photo)
Ships loading grain dock at the port in Odesa. (file photo)

Kyiv has accused Russia of delaying more than 165 cargo ships heading to Ukrainian Black Sea ports to load up with grain under a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.

Russian inspectors "have been significantly prolonging the inspection of vessels," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on October 24. "As a result, more than 165 vessels have been stuck in a queue near the Bosphorus Strait, and this number continues to grow daily."

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Cargo ships carrying grain and other foodstuffs to and from Ukrainian ports must be inspected by teams organized by the four-party Joint Coordination Center (JCC), a group set up under the UN-Turkey brokered deal with Ukraine and Russia that was signed in July amid concerns that the blockage of Ukrainian grain exports was contributing to a global food crisis.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it had reason to believe the delays were politically motivated and were once again threatening food security for millions of people.

"Russia's actions undermine global food security, in particular in the Global South," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry statement added. "The inspection delays have already prevented Ukraine from exporting an additional 3 million tons of grain. Ten million people across the world have not received food in time because of Russia's political agenda."

Russia has previously threatened to pull out of the deal, which also gave Moscow guarantees for its own grain and fertilizer exports. The deal is up for renewal next month.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on October 24 that Moscow has asked the United Nations for data on the destination and end-consumers for Ukrainian grain exports. Lavrov said "corrections" needed to unblock shipments would depend on Russia receiving this information.

UN spokeswoman for the Black Sea Grain Initiative Ismini Palla said urgent steps were needed to relieve the backlog.

The delays "have the potential to cause disruptions to the supply chain and port operations," Palla said.

The deal freed up exports from three of Ukraine's ports -- Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdenniy -- which had been blockaded since Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine in late February. The first grain shipments left Ukraine in August.

The four parties to the deal -- Russia, Ukraine, and brokers Turkey and the UN -- are currently negotiating a possible extension and expansion beyond its November 19 deadline.

Palla said the UN convenes the parties daily "and has urged full and good faith participation in the [deal] and the need for additional urgent measures to be taken so the supply chain does not get disrupted and the initiative continues to deliver more and much needed food to the world."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Polio Inoculation Campaign Kicks Off In 21 Afghan Provinces

Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination drops to a child during an inoculation campaign in Jalalabad. (file photo)
Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination drops to a child during an inoculation campaign in Jalalabad. (file photo)

An extensive polio vaccination campaign started on February 26 in 21 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the country's Health Ministry said. The Taliban-controlled ministry's spokesman, Sharaf Zaman, said the four-day-long campaign aims to inoculate 7.6 million children under the age of five. Zaman asked local religious leaders to cooperate with the inoculation teams. Some parents in the northwest refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated against polio, an infectious disease that can cause paralysis and lead to death. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio has not been completely eradicated. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Denmark Ends Probe Into Nord Stream Blasts But Says 'Deliberate Sabotage' Was The Cause

Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the pipelines. (file photo)
Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the pipelines. (file photo)

Denmark says it has ended an investigation into the explosions that rocked the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in 2022, the second country after Sweden to drop a probe into the blasts earlier this month. "The assessment is that there is no necessary basis to further pursue a criminal case," Danish police said in a statement. However, they added that "based on the investigation, the authorities can conclude that there was deliberate sabotage of the gas lines." Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, while Moscow blamed the West.

Two Killed In Russian Air Strike On Ukraine's Sumy Region

Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. (file photo)
Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. (file photo)

Two people were killed in a Russian air strike in the northeastern Sumy region on February 26 as Russia unleashed a fresh wave of drone and missile strikes on Ukraine, regional officials and the military said. "A private residential building was destroyed, five others were damaged" in the strike on the village of Yunakyiv. "A couple was killed in the strike," Sumy regional authorities said in a message on Telegram. Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. Three Russian cruise missiles were also destroyed, it added. To read the original stories by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here and here.

Belarus Says All Parliament Seats Filled After Elections Called A 'Sham' By U.S. And 'Farce' By Opposition

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka casts his ballot during a heavily criticized parliamentary vote on February 25.
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka casts his ballot during a heavily criticized parliamentary vote on February 25.

Electoral authorities in Belarus have said that all 110 mandates of the lower parliament chamber have been occupied following tightly controlled parliamentary elections held on February 25 under heavy security at polling stations amid calls for a boycott by the country's beleaguered opposition.

The vote was criticized by the U.S. State Department, which called it a “sham” election held amid a “climate of fear.”

The Central Election Commission said that voter turnout was nearly 74 percent amid reports of people being intimidated into going to polling stations against their will.

The elections were widely expected to solidify the position of the country's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.

Under his rule, Belarus has become an increasingly repressive state, being described as ”Europe's last dictatorship" by some Western diplomats

Only four parties, all of which support Lukashenka's policies, were officially registered to compete in the polls -- Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Party of Labor and Justice. About a dozen parties were denied registration last year.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has claimed her victory over Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential election was stolen, described the elections as a "farce" and called for a boycott.

“There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement from in Lithuania, where she moved following a brutal crackdown on protests against the 2020 election results. “We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice.”

The U.S. State Department condemned the poll and called on Lukashenka to end his repression of political opponents and return the country to a democratic path.

“The United States condemns the Lukashenka regime’s sham parliamentary and local elections that concluded today in Belarus,” it said in a statement.

“The elections were held in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic. The regime continues to hold more than 1,400 political prisoners. All independent political figures have either been detained or exiled. All independent political parties were denied registration."

"The United States again calls on the Lukashenka regime to end its crackdown, release all political prisoners, and open dialogue with its political opponents," the statement said.

“The Belarusian people deserve better,” it said.

The general elections were the first to be held in Belarus since the 2020 presidential election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth term in office. More than 35,000 people were arrested in the monthslong mass protests that followed the controversial election.

On the occasion, Lukashenka told journalists after voting that he plans to run again for president in 2025.

"Tell them (the exiled opposition) that I'll run," the state news agency BelTa quoted Lukashenka as saying.

Ahead of the voting in parliamentary and local council elections, the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced a record amount of early voting, which began on February 20. Nearly 48 percent of registered voters had already voted by February 24, according to the CEC, eclipsing the nearly 42 percent of early voting recorded for the contentious 2020 presidential election.

Early voting is widely seen by observers as a mechanism employed by the Belarusian authorities to falsify elections. The Belarusian opposition has said the early voting process allows for voting manipulation, with ballot boxes unprotected for a five-day period.

The Vyasna Human Rights Center alleged that many voters were forced to participate in early voting, including students, soldiers, teachers, and other civil servants.

“Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need -- from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early,” said Vyasna representative Paval Sapelka. “Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote.”

The Belarusian authorities stepped up security on the streets and at polling stations around the country, with Interior Ministry police conducting drills on how to deal with voters who might try to violate restrictive rules imposed for the elections.

For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths, and voters were barred from taking pictures of their ballots -- a practice encouraged by activists in previous elections in an effort to prevent authorities from manipulating vote counts.

Polling stations were guarded by police, along with members of a youth law enforcement organization and retired security personnel. Armed rapid-response teams were also formed to deal with potential disturbances.

Lukashenka this week alleged without offering proof that Western countries were considering ways to stage a coup and ordered police to boost armed patrols across the country in order to ensure "law and order."

For the first time, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were denied access to monitor the vote in OSCE-member Belarus.

Updated

Karakalpak Activist Awaiting Extradition To Uzbekistan Gets Asylum Seeker Status In Kazakhstan

Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai)
Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Karakalpak activist Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai), who was arrested in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, at Uzbekistan's request earlier in February has been given asylum seeker status in Kazakhstan.

A relative of Muratov, Fariza Narbekova, told RFE/RL on February 26 that Kazakh officials had given him an asylum seeker's certificate three days earlier.

A court in Almaty had previously ruled that Muratov must stay in detention for at least 40 days while a court decision on his possible extradition to Uzbekistan was pending.

Muratov, an Uzbek citizen who has legally resided in Almaty for ten years, is known for his activities defending the rights of Karakalpaks living in Kazakhstan. He also raised awareness among international audiences about the situation in his native Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is in Uzbekistan.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement on February 25 saying "the criminal case brought against Muratbai in Uzbekistan is a clear-cut case of retaliation against an outspoken human rights activist." HRW demanded his immediate release.

A lawyer for the Almaty-based Kazakh Bureau for Human Rights group, Denis Dzhivaga, told RFE/RL earlier that his organization would provide Muratov with legal assistance.

According to Dzhivaga, Muratov's detention was similar to the arrests of other Karakalpak activists that took place in Kazakhstan following mass rallies in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, in July 2022. Thousands protested against Tashkent's plans to change the constitution, which would have undermined the republic's right to self-determination.

The protests were violently dispersed. Uzbek authorities said at the time that 21 people died during the protests, but the Austria-based Freedom for Eurasia human rights group said at least 70 people were killed during the unrest.

In January last year, an Uzbek court sentenced 22 Karakalpak activists to prison terms on charges that included undermining the constitutional order for taking part in the protests.

In March 2023, another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in the protests in Nukus were convicted, with 28 of them sentenced to prison terms of between five and 11 years. Eleven defendants were handed parole-like sentences.

The violence forced Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.

Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.

Hungary Set To Ratify Sweden's NATO Accession, Clearing Last Hurdle

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23.

Hungary is expected to ratify Sweden's NATO accession on February 26, clearing the last hurdle before the historic step by the Nordic country whose neutrality lasted through two world wars and the simmering conflict of the Cold War. The Hungarian parliament's vote, which is expected to pass smoothly after a visit by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on February 24 during which the two countries signed an arms deal, will end months of delays to complete Sweden's security policy shift. Stockholm abandoned its nonalignment policy for greater safety within NATO in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Ukraine Can Win War With Russia But Needs Support From West, Says U.S. National-Security Adviser

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said that "Ukraine still has the potential if we give it the tools and resources it needs to win this war." 
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said that "Ukraine still has the potential if we give it the tools and resources it needs to win this war." 

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said Ukraine can still win its war with Russia but that it must get “the tools it needs” from its Western allies. Sullivan on February 25 said Kyiv’s forces lost the recent battle for Avdiyivka due to a lack of ammunition. He said that is why Kyiv needs the $60 billion aid package that received "a massive bipartisan vote in the Senate. The House of Representatives should step forward and pass it." He added that "Ukraine still has the potential if we give it the tools and resources it needs to win this war." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.


Deputy Prime Minister Says 160 Tons Of Ukrainian Grain Destroyed In Poland

Police officers, customs officers, and railway workers stand next to piles of corn spilled from train cars in the Polish village of Kotomierz, near the Ukrainian border, on February 25.
Police officers, customs officers, and railway workers stand next to piles of corn spilled from train cars in the Polish village of Kotomierz, near the Ukrainian border, on February 25.

Around 160 tons of Ukrainian grain was destroyed at a Polish railway station amid large-scale protests in what Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov on February 25 called an act of "impunity and irresponsibility." Polish farmers protesting this month against what they say is unfair competition from Ukraine and EU environment regulations have blocked border crossings with Ukraine and spilled Ukrainian produce from train wagons. EU agriculture ministers are due to meet in Brussels on February 26 to discuss proposals aimed at changing some regulations at the heart of recent discontent.

Taliban Releases 84-Year-Old Austrian Man Detained In Afghanistan Last Year

Austrian Herbert Fritz had been held in a Kabul prison since being arrested last year. (file photo)
Austrian Herbert Fritz had been held in a Kabul prison since being arrested last year. (file photo)

An Austrian man, 84, who had been arrested in Afghanistan has been released by the Taliban, the Austrian government said on February 25. The Austrian Foreign Ministry said Herbert Fritz arrived in Doha, Qatar, from Afghanistan. A spokeswoman said the man had been held in a Kabul prison. An Austrian newspaper last year reported that an Austrian man had been arrested in Afghanistan and that he was a far-right extremist and co-founder of a minor far-right party that was banned in 1988. It said he was arrested after a far-right magazine published an article he wrote titled Vacation With The Taliban in which he gave a positive view of life under Taliban rule.

Updated

Zelenskiy Says 31,000 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed In War, Expresses Hopes For Swiss Peace Summit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the February 25 news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the February 25 news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.

KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 25 said that 31,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since the start of Russia’s invasion two years ago -- his first official acknowledgement of the country’s combat losses -- while expressing hopes that a summit of world leaders will be held in Switzerland in the coming months to discuss his vision for peace.

"Thirty-one thousand Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in this war," Zelenskiy told a news conference in the Ukrainian capital marking the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which began on February 24, 2022.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

“Not 300,000, not 150,000, not whatever [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his deceitful circle have been lying about. But nevertheless, each of these losses is a great sacrifice for us," he said.

Zelenskiy said he would not discuss the number of wounded, citing security reasons.

The number appears to be the first official detailing of the death toll for Ukrainian soldiers, although the figure cannot be independently verified. The last time Kyiv spoke of the number of combat losses was at the end of 2022, when presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said 10,000 to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.

The New York Times in August 2023, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 had been wounded by that date. The report also said Russia had suffered 120,000 troops killed and 170,000 to 180,000 injured.

Zelenskiy claimed Russia has lost 180,000 soldiers killed and 500,000 wounded in the war, figures much higher than other estimates but impossible to confirm. Russia does not disclose its war losses.

On February 24, Swiss President Viola Amherd said neutral Switzerland hopes to host a senior-level peace conference in the next few months.

"I hope it [a summit] will take place this spring. We must not lose this diplomatic initiative," Zelenskiy said.

He added that he expected the resulting peace initiative to be presented to Moscow.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine's victory in the war depends on continued Western support, which has faced resistance mainly from Republican Party lawmakers in the United States.

Zelenskiy Says 31,000 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed Since Start Of Russia's Full-Scale Invasion
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He told the news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.

"Whether Ukraine will lose, whether it will be very difficult for us, and whether there will be a large number of casualties depends on you, on our partners, on the Western world," Zelenskiy said.

He said that "there is hope for Congress. And I am sure that it is going to be positive. Otherwise, I couldn't conceive of the world we would begin to live in."

Zelenskiy urged his citizens to remain unified despite the hardships caused by the Russian invasion.

"Now is the most difficult moment for our unity. If we all fall apart, from the outside and God forbid inside, then this will be the weakest moment. It has not happened yet," he said.

Zelenskiy has faced pressures from within the country, as well as from foreign sources, for the perceived lack of progress by Ukraine’s forces in recent months.

He insisted there is a "clear path" forward for a new offensive but said he would not publicly discuss the matter, claiming the Kremlin was able to get details of Ukraine's previous counteroffensive plan before it began.

"Our counteroffensive action plans were on the Kremlin's table before the counteroffensive actions began...because of information leaks," he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The New York Times

Russian Drone Forces Germany's Baerbock To Cut Short Waterworks Plant Visit In Ukraine

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, visit a Ukraine-Moldova border crossing point in the Odesa region on February 24.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, visit a Ukraine-Moldova border crossing point in the Odesa region on February 24.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had to cut short her tour of a waterworks facility in southern Ukraine on February 25 when a Russian spy drone was sighted, a Foreign Office official said. Baerbock had been visiting the Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv over the weekend when members of the delegation were asked to quickly return to the armored vehicles in Baerbock's convoy after a Russian drone was spotted flying over the waterworks. Baerbock earlier announced that Germany will provide an additional 100 million euros ($108 million) in humanitarian aid to Ukraine to support the water supply, hospitals, and housing.

Afghan Girls Banned From Contacting Media In Eastern Province

The Taliban police in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost Province has banned local radio and television channels from accepting phone calls from girls, citing immorality. (file photo)
The Taliban police in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost Province has banned local radio and television channels from accepting phone calls from girls, citing immorality. (file photo)

The Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) has reported that Taliban police authorities in the eastern Khost Province have banned girls from contacting local radio and television channels and warned local media outlets not to accept phone calls from girls.

Regional security head Abdul Rashid Omari cited the potential for spreading immorality as the reason for giving the order in a letter he sent to the Taliban's provincial Information and Culture department.

In the letter, published by the media watchdog AFJC's website on February 25, Omari alleged that some private media outlets were spreading corruption by way of "illegitimate contacts" with girls through their social and educational programs.

The letter alleged that such contacts led to "inappropriate behavior" that was in violation of the hard-line Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law.

It said that local media, some of which allegedly lacked the required permission to broadcast educational content, had been warned they could be summoned and prosecuted for violating the order.

Representatives of two media outlets in the province confirmed to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that they had received warnings but declined to reveal their identities or to have the names of their outlets published out of fear of retribution by the Taliban.

Taliban officials in Khost Province did not respond to requests by Radio Azadi for comment.

Educational and social programs have emerged as a crucial outlet following the Taliban's banishment of education for girls past sixth grade.

AFJC communications head Samia Walizadeh told Radio Azadi that the order was in clear violation of media laws and the right for citizens to have free access to information and said the nongovernmental watchdog was demanding the order be rescinded so that "freedom of expression can be saved."

One woman from Khost Province who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition that her voice be altered for her protection said prohibiting girls from contacting the media shows that "women are slowly being removed from society as a whole."

According to the AFJC, which operates independently across Afghanistan under the country's mass media law, 15 private radio stations and three private television outlets are broadcasting in Khost Province, along with National Radio and Television under the control of the Taliban.

In August, women's voices were banned from being broadcast by media in the southern Helmand Province. That order warned that media outlets would face punishment and possibly be shut down if any women's voices were broadcast on air, including advertisements.

The Taliban has used its interpretation of Shari'a law to justify its consistent degradation of women's rights, including barring women from public spaces and education, and jailing women's rights activists who dare protest.

Despite promises to allow press freedom after returning to power, the Taliban has also shut down independent radio stations, television studios, and newspapers. Some media outlets have closed after losing funding.

The Taliban-led government has banned some international broadcasters while some foreign correspondents have been denied visas.

Iranian Labor Council Says State-Worker Wage Discussions Sidelined 'More Than Ever'

The Iranian Labor Council, according to the ILNA, said boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation.
The Iranian Labor Council, according to the ILNA, said boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation.

Iran's Supreme Labor Council, meeting ahead of the end of the Persian calendar year, said efforts to boost the minimum wage for state workers in next year's budget have yet to be discussed in negotiations with the government. The state-affiliated ILNA news agency on February 25 quoted the labor body as saying that "wage negotiations are on the sidelines more than ever," even though boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation. According to the Supreme Labor Council, Labor Minister Solet Mortazivi is set on a wage increase of 20 percent despite inflation hitting 44 percent. To read the original story by Radio Farda, click here.

Updated

Top Ukrainian General, Defense Minister Look For Ways To Boost Frontline Defenses

Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov (left) and Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskiy visit command posts in the Donetsk region on February 13.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov (left) and Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskiy visit command posts in the Donetsk region on February 13.

Ukrainian Army chief Oleksandr Syrskiy has said he traveled with Defense Minister Rustem Umerov to the front line of Kyiv's effort to stave off invading Russian forces to analyze the situation and determine ways to boost defenses.

"During the visit, we analyzed the current situation in detail and discussed the necessary further steps, primarily the protection of troops from drones and air strikes by air-defense systems, as well as the strengthening of certain areas of the front," Sirskiy wrote on Facebook on February 25.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

"The enemy regularly storms the positions of our troops. In many areas, the situation is complex and requires constant monitoring," Syskiy wrote, saying he had stressed the importance of coordinated military actions and protecting the lives of Ukrainian soldiers.

It was not clear when and where the visit to the front took place, but Syskiy's post came a day after the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as Ukraine struggles to stave off Russian forces and is dealing with a critical shortage of weapons and ammunition.

Umerov recently said the shortage of artillery shells meant that Ukrainian forces were restricted to firing no more than 2,000 shells a day along the 1,500-kilometer front, while Russian forces were firing three times that amount.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during a video address on February 13 that Syrskiy and Umerov had "visited all the hot spots of the front." Zelenskiy said the two were "solving existing problems," including troop shortages and management and that the front would be reinforced with the help of drones and other weaponry.

On February 23, Syrskiy and Umerov met with a delegation of U.S. senators to discuss the battlefield situation and the need for more weapons and ammunition.

The same day, U.S. President Joe Biden urged the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives to pass an emergency spending package to provide $60 billion to Ukraine "before it's too late."

The bill allowing Kyiv to purchase weapons and ammunition, support military training and intelligence sharing, and fund government operations was passed by the Democratic-led Senate, the upper house of the U.S. Congress, on February 13.

Ukraine has said it tripled its weapons production last year as it looks to boost arms production and innovation.

Strategic Industry Minister Oleksandr Kamyshin, speaking during a televised conference on February 25, said that 100 state and 400 private companies are involved the effort, and that Ukraine seeks to "considerably increase ammunition production."

Digital Transformation Minister Mykhaylo Fedorov the same day said 90 percent of the drones being used in the war are now produced in Ukraine.

Ukraine has called on its Western partners to boost the delivery of arms and funding and has received positive responses from the United Kingdom, Sweden, and others in recent days.

However, Ukrainian Defense Minister Umerov said on February 25 that half of the Western arms provided to Ukraine are delivered late.

Updated

Voting Ends In Belarus Elections Called A 'Sham' By U.S. And 'Farce' By Opposition

Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaks in Minsk on February 20.
Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaks in Minsk on February 20.

Polls have closed for Belarus's tightly controlled parliamentary elections, which were held under heavy security at polling stations and amid calls for a boycott by the country's beleaguered opposition.

The February 25 elections were widely expected to solidify the position of the country's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Only four parties, all of which support Lukashenka's policies, were officially registered to compete in the polls -- Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Party of Labor and Justice. About a dozen parties were denied registration last year.

Polls opened for the general elections at 8 a.m. local time and closed at 8 p.m.

According to the Central Election Commission, voter turnout was 73 percent.

Results are expected to be announced on February 26, the commission said.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has claimed her victory over Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential election was stolen, described the elections as a "farce" and called for a boycott.

"There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part," Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement from her exile in Lithuania, where she moved following a brutal crackdown on protests against the 2020 election results. "We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice."

In a separate message posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Tsikhanouskaya said on February 25 that her video address to the Belarusian people about the elections and Russia's invasion of Ukraine had been displayed on 2,000 screens in public spaces throughout Belarus. The action, she said, was organized by a coalition of former police and security forces officers.

The U.S. State Department blasted what it called a "sham" election, held amid a "climate of fear."

"The United States condemns the Lukashenka regime's sham parliamentary and local elections that concluded today in Belarus," it said in a statement.

"The elections were held in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic. The regime continues to hold more than 1,400 political prisoners. All independent political figures have either been detained or exiled. All independent political parties were denied registration."

"The Belarusian people deserve better,” it said.

The general elections were the first to be held in Belarus since the 2020 presidential election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth term in office. More than 35,000 people were arrested in the monthslong mass protests that followed the controversial election.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on people to "boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice."
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on people to "boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice."

On the occasion, Lukashenka told journalists after voting that he plans to run again for president in 2025.

"Tell them (the exiled opposition) that I'll run," the state news agency BelTa quoted Lukashenka as saying.

Ahead of the voting in parliamentary and local council elections, the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced a record amount of early voting, which began on February 20. Nearly 48 percent of registered voters had already voted by February 24, according to the CEC, eclipsing the nearly 42 percent of early voting recorded for the contentious 2020 presidential election.

Early voting is widely seen by observers as a mechanism employed by the Belarusian authorities to falsify elections. The Belarusian opposition has said the early voting process allows for voting manipulation, with ballot boxes unprotected for a five-day period.

The Vyasna Human Rights Center alleged that many voters were forced to participate in early voting, including students, soldiers, teachers, and other civil servants.

"Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need -- from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early,” said Vyasna representative Pavel Sapelka. “Detentions, arrests, and searches are taking place during the vote.”

The Belarusian authorities stepped up security on the streets and at polling stations around the country, with Interior Ministry police conducting drills on how to deal with voters who might try to violate restrictive rules imposed for the elections.

For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths, and voters were barred from taking pictures of their ballots -- a practice encouraged by activists in previous elections in an effort to prevent authorities from manipulating vote counts.

Polling stations were guarded by police, along with members of a youth law-enforcement organization and retired security personnel. Armed rapid-response teams were also formed to deal with potential disturbances.

Lukashenka this week alleged without offering proof that Western countries were considering ways to stage a coup and ordered police to boost armed patrols across the country in order to ensure "law and order."

For the first time, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were denied access to monitor the vote in OSCE-member Belarus.

In the run-up to the vote, rights organizations uncovered violations pertaining to how local election committees were formed. An expert mission organized by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Viasna said in late January that the lower number of local election committees and their compositions could indicate higher control by the authorities over the election process and an effort to stack the committees with government loyalists.

Following the vote, Belarus is expected to form a new, 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will have broad powers to appoint judges and election officials and to consider amendments to the constitution. The new body will include elected local legislators, as well as top officials, union members, and pro-government activists.

Dozens Mourning Navalny's Death, Expressing Solidarity With Ukraine Detained In Russia

A woman lays flowers to pay tribute to Aleksei Navalny at the monument to political prisoners with the Federal Security Service building in the background in Moscow on February 21.
A woman lays flowers to pay tribute to Aleksei Navalny at the monument to political prisoners with the Federal Security Service building in the background in Moscow on February 21.

At least 32 people mourning the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and marking the anniversary of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine were detained in Russia on February 24. The OVD-Info human-rights monitor reported that the 32 people were detained during commemorations in nine Russian cities. Twenty-seven of those detained had laid flowers in memory of Navalny, who died under unclear circumstances on February 16 at a remote Arctic prison. Two wives of Russian soldiers, who were participating in rally by a group calling for fairer treatment for draftees, were detained along with three people protesting against the war. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Zelenskiy Meets With Swedish Defense Minister To Discuss Security, Weapons Production

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson meet in Kyiv on February 24.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson meet in Kyiv on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson in Kyiv on February 24, the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to discuss a new Swedish military-aid package and the possibility of joint weapons production. "Today is the day this tragedy began, and it is very important for us that our friends are here," Zelenskiy said, describing Jonson's visit as "an important sign of his country's solidarity with Ukraine." On February 20, Sweden announced it would deliver $682 million in military aid to Ukraine, the Nordic country's 15th aid package since Russia's 2022 invasion. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

G7 Leaders Hold Virtual Summit On Anniversary Of Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen join the virtual G7 leaders' meeting from Kyiv on February 24.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen join the virtual G7 leaders' meeting from Kyiv on February 24.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) vowed on February 24 to support Ukraine for as long as needed in its war against Russia and said they would look for ways to make Moscow pay for the damage inflicted by its invasion.

The G7 leaders held a videoconference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to mark the second anniversary of the Russian invasion.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

"As Ukraine enters the third year of this relentless war, its government and its people can count on the G7’s support for as long as it takes," the G7 leaders' statement said.

Zelenskiy told the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States that they "know very well" what Ukraine needs to protect its skies and strengthen its army on the ground.

"You know everything we need to support and continue our success at sea. And you well understand that we need all this in time. We are counting on you," Zelenskiy said, calling on the leaders to remember "that imperial ambitions and revanchism disappear only with the defeat of those who are infected by them."

This is historically what clears the way for real security and the development of democracy, he added.

"We hear at this time 'History is watching,' and this is absolutely true," he said, referring to the words of U.S. President Joe Biden in recent speeches imploring the House of Representatives to pass a bill that includes $61 billion in aid to Ukraine.

The first G7 summit in 2024 took place exactly two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

"I thank you for these two years together. That terrible day of February 24 and all the horror brought by Russia still did not deprive Ukraine of a normal future," Zelenskiy told the G7 leaders.

Zelenskiy signed security agreements earlier on February 24 with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who were in Kyiv along with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to mark the war's two-year anniversary.

"The message I want to send today to...all the Ukrainian people is that they are not alone," Meloni said as she signed a 10-year defense pact with Zelenskiy.

Trudeau signed a similar accord and pledged some $2.25 billion in financial and military support this year.

"Every day since Russia’s invasion began, the G7 has stood with Ukraine. And today, together, we reaffirmed that support. We are united. We are unwavering. And we are not going to let Putin win," Trudeau said.

Zelenskiy also met with Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson to discuss the potential for joint arms production and future negotiations on signing a bilateral security agreement.

With reporting by Reuters

March In Belgrade To Mark War Anniversary Calls For Continued Support For Ukraine

The Support Ukraine march event, held at the invitation of the Ukrainian Embassy to mark the second anniversary since the start of the war, drew people into the streets waving the flags of Ukraine and the European Union and displaying messages in support of peace.
The Support Ukraine march event, held at the invitation of the Ukrainian Embassy to mark the second anniversary since the start of the war, drew people into the streets waving the flags of Ukraine and the European Union and displaying messages in support of peace.

People gathered in the center of Belgrade on February 24 and marched to Republic Square, where they lit candles and held a minute of silence for the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Support Ukraine march event, held at the invitation of the Ukrainian Embassy to mark the second anniversary since the start of the war, drew people into the streets waving the flags of Ukraine and the European Union and displaying messages in support of peace.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Serbia Volodymyr Tolkach took part in the march along with the head of the delegation of the European Union, Emanuele Giofre, and the ambassadors of Sweden and Britain.

Tolkach said Ukraine is grateful to the international coalition that has helped the country survive over the past two years.

“Russia is ready for long and arduous war that will exhaust Ukraine, and if we want to fight against dictatorship and totalitarianism, we need to improve our efficiency. We should not let Ukraine to lose this war,” Tolkach said.

Giofre repeated the EU’s determination to stand by Ukraine.

"We are here to first of all pay respect to the many Ukrainians who have lost their lives, their loved ones in this horrible war, but also to pay respect to the resilience of the Ukrainian people that are standing tall in these difficult times, and to express our commitment to stand by them in the months and moments to come," Giofre said.

Elsewhere in Serbia, the anniversary was marked in Novi Sad by a march and the laying of flowers at memorials to victims of the war. A walk for peace in Ukraine and a free Russia organized by the Russian Democratic Society was also held in Belgrade. The group is made up of critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and opponents of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Since the start of the war, Russian and Ukrainian anti-war activists in Serbia have organized a series of protests against it, but there also have been rallies in support of Russia organized by ultra-right groups, and Belgrade has expelled or banned several anti-war activists who fled Russia after the invasion.

Serbia joined the United Nations resolutions condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has said it respects Ukraine's territorial integrity, but it has also resisted EU pressure to join Western sanctions to punish Moscow for the war.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told TASS on February 20 that Belgrade is under great pressure from the West to impose sanctions Russia.

"We will try to defend our position as long as possible. We have been doing this for two years and I hope we will be able to continue,” Vucic said.

Bulgarian Sanctioned By U.S., Britain For Corruption Elected To Leadership Role In Major Bulgarian Party

Delyan Peevski, a veteran member of parliament, was elected co-president of the party with Djevdet Chakarov.
Delyan Peevski, a veteran member of parliament, was elected co-president of the party with Djevdet Chakarov.

A Bulgarian lawmaker who has been sanctioned by the United States and Britain for alleged corruption, has been elected a co-president of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms at the party’s national convention in Sofia.

Delyan Peevski, a veteran member of parliament, was elected co-president of the party with Djevdet Chakarov, another veteran member of parliament and environment minister from 2005-09 when the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was in the governing coalition.

Peevski initially was the only candidate for president, but some members objected, prompting founder and honorary chairman of the party Ahmed Dogan to suggest Chakarov as co-president to please ethnic Turks. But it is clear to observers that Peevski is the party's main leader.

The move makes Peevski the first ethnic Bulgarian to lead the party, which has traditionally represented Bulgarian Turks and other Muslim communities in the country.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms was founded in 1990 after the Bulgarian Communist party changed the names of Bulgarian Turks and expelled thousands of them to Turkey. It has consistently held seats in Bulgaria's parliament and over the years has been in and out of the government.

Though it is not in the current governing coalition formed by Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria and GERB, it supports its pro-Western course and Peevski attends government majority meetings in parliament.

Nikolay Denkov’s government survived a no-confidence vote in October that was sought by three opposition parties, including the pro-Russian party Vazrazhdane, over plans for a transition to cleaner energy and other energy policies.

Movement for Rights and Freedoms joined members of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s GERB party and We Continue The Change – Democratic Bulgaria in support of the government, which Denkov's formed in July after five general elections within two years.

Denkov on February 24 issued a statement on the two-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, assuring Kyiv of Bulgaria’s continued support.

"Two years ago, the Kremlin reminded us that we must fight for peace and defend our values," the statement said. Bulgaria is defending these values by continuing to support Ukraine, Denkov said, while Russia is fighting against "the right to a free, happy and full life" for everyone in Europe.

Peevski, whose opponents describe as an oligarch with influence in politics, the judiciary, and the media, and Borisov dominated Bulgarian politics for much of the past 14 years.

Peevski, who is believed to be one of Bulgaria's richest men, was sanctioned for corruption in 2021 under the U.S. Magnitskiy Act, and Britain followed suit one year later.

With reporting by dpa

Ukrainians Honor Fallen Soldiers With Exhibition, Religious Service

Ukrainians Honor Fallen Soldiers With Exhibition, Religious Service
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An ecumenical prayer service was held in Zaporizhzhya on February 24. Locals joined church dignitaries near an outdoor exhibition that features photos and names of soldiers killed in the defense of Ukraine. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the eastern city of Zaporizhzhya was near the front line. Russia controls a nearby nuclear power plant to this day.

Ukraine Signs Bilateral Security Agreement With Canada, Zelenskiy Says

Left to right: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo at Maryinsky Palace in Kyiv on February 24.
Left to right: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo pose for a photo at Maryinsky Palace in Kyiv on February 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 said he signed a bilateral security agreement with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Kyiv. The 10-year agreement "strengthens the position of our people, particularly our soldiers," Zelenskiy said on X. Canada joins Italy, Britain, Germany, France, and Denmark in concluding security agreements intended to shore up Ukraine's security until it can reach its aim of becoming a member of NATO. Zelenskiy said signing the agreement was "a strong and timely decision that will significantly strengthen our resilience."

Ukraine And Italy Sign Bilateral Security Agreement, Zelenskiy Says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 signed a bilateral security agreement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 signed a bilateral security agreement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 24 signed a bilateral security agreement with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Italy joined Britain, Germany, France, and Denmark in concluding a 10-year security deal with Kyiv -- agreements intended to shore up Ukraine's security until it can reach its aim of becoming a member of NATO. Meloni is on a visit to Kyiv to underline continued support as Ukraine marks the second anniversary of the start of Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Zelenskiy Aide Downplays Prospect Of Early Peace Talks, Swiss Say Russia Unlikely At Start

Senior aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said "there are no other options to end the war besides the collapse of the front line and tactical defeats of Russia. Everything else is fiction." (file photo)
Senior aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said "there are no other options to end the war besides the collapse of the front line and tactical defeats of Russia. Everything else is fiction." (file photo)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's senior aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said on February 24 that it's impossible to predict when the war might end and suggested Zelenskiy's office is not currently in favor of peace talks with Russia as it would mean the "gradual death of Ukraine."

Podolyak acknowledged a need to audit available resources and weaponry but said "there are no other options to end the war besides the collapse of the front line and tactical defeats of Russia. Everything else is fiction."

The remarks come as Kyiv and its backers seek to send a defiant message to Moscow on the second anniversary of the unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Swiss President Viola Amherd was quoted by Neue Zuercher Zeitung on February 24 as saying Russia was unlikely to participate at the start of a senior-level peace conference that neutral Switzerland hopes to host in the next few months.

The remarks followed Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis telling the United Nations that the idea was broached in January and Bern hoped for such a conference "by this summer."

With additional reporting by Reuters

Imprisoned Nobel Laureate Mohammadi Urges Boycott, Sanctions, Condemnation Of Iran Elections

Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)
Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi has urged a boycott alongside "national sanctions and global condemnation" of next month's legislative elections there, calling the moves "a political necessity and a moral duty."

"Sanctioning elections under a despotic religious regime is not just a political move but also a moral obligation for freedom-loving and justice-seeking Iranians," Mohammadi said on social media on February 24.

Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran.

She pledged that "I, alongside the informed and proud people from all over Iran, from Sistan and Baluchestan to Kurdistan, from Khuzestan to Azerbaijan, will stand to declare the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic and the divide within the oppressive regime and its people through the sanctioning of sham elections."

In January, an Iranian court extended the 51-year-old Mohammadi's prison sentence by 15 months for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic while in jail. It was her fifth conviction since March 2021 and the third for activities from prison, where she was sent for alleged actions against national security and propaganda against the state.

In her February 24 post, she criticized Iranian authorities' "ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions, and the imprisonment and torture of men and women."

A number of prominent Iranians outside the country and some political and civil activists in Iran have already called for a boycott of the March 1 voting.

Officials routinely vet to exclude large numbers of candidates who are critical of the regime from elections to fill seats at all nearly all levels of government.

"Transition from the despotic religious regime is a national demand and the only way for the survival of Iran, Iranians, and our humanity," Mohammadi said.

Mustafa Tajzadeh, a jailed former reform-minded politician, said in a letter he published on February 29 from Tehran's Evin Prison that the leadership's strategic mistakes are "making elections meaningless and making elected institutions ineffective...especially the parliament."

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

Some government polls also indicate that there is waning interest in the votes.

The Iranian Students' Opinion Center (ISPA) said research in February suggested only 36 percent of Iranians were aware of the upcoming elections.

A brutal crackdown on dissent followed widespread protests and unrest that broke out after the death in custody in September 2022 of 22-year-old student Mahsa Amini after she was detained for a dress-code violation and, according to eyewitnesses, beaten by the morality police.

Iranian officials this week officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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