Pence Tells Europe U.S. Remains Its 'Greatest Ally,' Urges More Defense Spending
MUNICH, Germany -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has told European leaders that the United States "is now and will always be your greatest ally," seeking to assuage concerns about Washington's commitment to transatlantic ties under President Donald Trump.
Speaking on February 18 at the Munich Security Conference, Pence said the "enduring bond" between the United States and Europe was built not only on "strength of arms" but on shared values and principles "that we cherish: freedom, democracy, justice, and the rule of law."
He said he brought a message from Trump: "The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering" in its support for the alliance.
At the same time, Pence forcefully repeated Trump's calls for European allies to shoulder their share of the financial burden, saying that only five NATO members had reached a target set in 2014 of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense within a decade, and that several had no clear path to that goal.
"It's time to do more," Pence said.
He said the United States will "hold Russia accountable" for interference in Ukraine even as it seeks "common ground" with Moscow, which he said Trump believed can be found.
Russia must uphold the 2015 Minsk cease-fire and peace deal signed in Belarus, starting by de-escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, Pence said.
Turning to broader issues, Pence said that the United States was committed to ensuring that Iran cannot obtain nuclear weapons, and to fighting "radical Islamic terrorism" as well as threats from "rogue nations" and other "new adversaries" he said had emerged following the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago.
The focus on this year's edition of the prominent annual security conference in Munich has been fears that Trump might loosen U.S. ties to Europe, withdraw or reduce U.S. backing for NATO, and sacrifice the interests of countries from Ukraine to Western Europe in the name of a new "reset" with Russia.
Those worries stem from comments from Trump, who in the past year has expressed enthusiasm for Britain's exit from the European Union, called NATO "obsolete," voiced admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested he might scrap sanctions imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.
"Know this: the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found," Pence said.
Lavrov Rejects Blame On Moscow
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the blame placed on Moscow for the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,750 people since it erupted in April 2014 -- shortly after Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine.
Lavrov accused Ukraine of failing to meet its commitments under the Minsk agreement and suggested that the remarks of Western officials about the conflict reflected a Cold War mind-set that he said persists in the West.
In a pointedly short statement a few hours after Pence spoke, Lavrov repeated Russian accusations that the enlargement of NATO to include former Soviet republics and satellites has created tension in Europe -- rejecting the alliance's position that it is Russia's aggressive actions that are to blame.
Lavrov said that the "post-Cold War order" had come to an end and that he hoped "responsible leaders" will choose to create a "democratic and just world order -- if you want you can call it a post-West world order."
Lavrov was speaking 10 years after Russian President Vladimir Putin used the Munich Security Conference as the stage for a sriking denunciation of the United States as a dangerous hegemon that was ignoring state borders, violating international law, and "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts."
While repeating Kremlin criticism of the West and its military alliance, Lavrov called for the resumption of military cooperation between Russia and NATO, and said Moscow wanted relations with the United States that are "pragmatic" and marked by mutual respect and acknowledgement of a shared responsibility for global stability.
Lavrov said the badly strained ties that existed now are "unnatural" and the two countries have huge potential for cooperation.
Pence, for his part, did not go into much detail about the prospects for "common ground" between Washington and Moscow.
Focusing on the transatlantic relationship, he painted a powerful picture of what he suggested were the historical affinities between the United States and Europe, using anecdotes about two previous visits to Germany to make his point.
During the Cold War, he crossed from a Western Europe seeking to rebuild after World War II into drab communist East Germany, he said -- then traveled to Germany again after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and saw flowers and other signs of mourning and solidarity.
"Europe stood tall with the United States" at that time, Pence said, adding that "the American people will be forever grateful."
But he warned Europe that "peace only comes through strength" and that "Europe's defense requires your commitment as much as ours."
"The United States will be strong -- stronger than ever before," he said, stressing that Washington plans to spend more on its military.
Merkel Backs Minsk Pact In Ukraine
Pence addressed the conference just after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said she was committed to meeting the defense-spending goal set by NATO in 2014, and the two met for talks later in the day.
Merkel said Western states must protect the principle of territorial integrity, calling it a crucial foundation of the post-World War II order, and that NATO needed to strengthen its eastern flank following Russia's interference in Ukraine.
Merkel said that there was "great anxiety" about the situation in eastern Ukraine and that Russia's interference in Ukraine "highlighted" the importance of NATO. Stressing the need to maintain international alliances, Merkel told the audience -- with Pence seated a few meters away -- that NATO was "in the American interest."
Merkel said she was committed to seeking a political solution to the conflict and supported the Minsk agreement, which she called "the only thing we have at the moment to move forward talks and the possibility of solving the problems. When we don't have anything else, I am against throwing something away that may still be useful."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told other leaders at the Munich conference on February 17 that they must not "appease" Russia by lifting sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union for seizing Crimea and stoking conflict in eastern Ukraine.
"It would be a mistake to think that Russia's appetite is limited" to Ukraine.
After talks with Pence in Munich on February 18, Poroshenko said he received a "very strong message supporting Ukraine" in that meeting and in phone calls with Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the last two weeks.
Pence also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the security of the Baltic countries in a meeting with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Pence's office said he noted the Trump administration's support for the collective defense of NATO allies -- a crucial concern for the Baltic states, which are wary of Russia's intentions.
Pence held separate meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Masud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. U.S. officials said he thanked both for committing to fight the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and encouraged close cooperation between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government.
Meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Pence voiced U.S. support for Afghanistan's national unity government, and officials said the two affirmed the importance of continuing what they called the "strategic partnership" between the United States.
And Pence met with Bono, the Irish rock star and social activist.
Also on the sidelines of the security conference, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, and mediators Germany and France agreed to press for implementation of the existing and much-violated cease-fire in eastern Ukraine starting on February 20.
"All parties will use their influence to implement the agreement of the trilateral contact group from February 15," referring to a body comprising Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"The aim is to have a cease-fire starting from February 20 and to do what has long been agreed but never implemented: To withdraw the heavy weapons from the region, to secure them and enable the OSCE monitors to control where they are kept," German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters.
Merkel, meanwhile, said she wanted good relations with Russia and believes it is in the common interest of Russia and the West to fight international terrorism.
She also said that Western countries had a "responsibility to bear" in accepting refugees and tackling the root causes leading people to flee their countries.
Merkel called for countries to work together, saying they must do so if they are to be strong. "Will we be able to act in concert, or will we fall back into parochial policies...? Let us stand together and make the world a better place," she said.
Speaking after Pence, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said all allies must contribute their share in funding the alliance and stressed that NATO's "bond remains essential" on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Europe needs North America and North America needs Europe," he said.
"I don't think America First means America alone," Stoltenberg said, referring to a policy Trump set out in his inaugural address on January 20.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa, Interfax, and TASS
Biden Calls Russia's 'Murderous Assault' Against Ukraine A 'Test For The Ages,' Says U.S. Will Stand With Kyiv
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States is united in its support for Ukraine as it opposes the "murderous assault" of Russia's invasion and that Washington will stand with Ukraine "as long as it takes."
Speaking during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said his government united NATO, built a global coalition, and stood against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We stood with the Ukrainian people," he said, as Kyiv's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, looked on from the gallery.
"She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people," Biden said.
The United States and other NATO allies have provided billions of dollars in military aid, including air-defense systems, to bolster Ukrainian forces. U.S. and European Union sanctions have also sought to impose a financial cost on Russia.
Biden noted that his address to lawmakers last year came days after Putin launched what Biden called a "brutal attack against Ukraine" and a test for the world.
"I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal attack against Ukraine -- a murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," Biden said. "Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world."
"Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden asked. "One year later, we know the answer: Yes, we would, and we did. We did."
Biden called Putin's invasion a test for America that showed it would stand for the defense of democracy.
"Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity," he said.
Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden's remarks.
"I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, 'We are in it as long as it takes,'" Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told VOA.
"This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine," she added.
Late last year, Congress passed a spending bill that included $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, which many House Republicans, including McCarthy, opposed.
Biden said the United States faces serious challenges around the world, but that in the past two years, democracies have become stronger while autocracies have grown weaker.
He did not mention Iran or Afghanistan in his remarks. Republicans have criticized his administration for trying to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, as well as what they argued was a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
With reporting by Cindy Saine of VOA
U.S. Charges Associate Of Russian Oligarch With Sanctions Evasion, Money Laundering
U.S. prosecutors have charged fugitive Russian citizen Vladimir Voronchenko with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme connected to the assets of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Voronchenko, who portrayed himself as a successful businessman, art dealer, and collector, and as a close friend of Vekselberg is accused of participating in the scheme in an indictment unsealed in federal court on February 7, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Washington imposed sanctions on Vekselberg in 2018 over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and again in 2022 over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Voronchenko, 70, was accused of participating in the scheme by making payments to maintain four U.S. properties that were owned by Vekselberg, the Justice Department’s statement said.
Voronchenko was also charged with contempt of court for failing to comply with a grand jury subpoena requiring his personal appearance and testimony, the Justice Department added.
Federal agents served the subpoena in May. About nine days later, Voronchenko took a flight from Miami, Florida, to Dubai, and then went to Moscow, prosecutors said.
Before he was designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Vekselberg, a billionaire with ties to Russia’s mining industry, bought several properties in the United States through a series of shell companies.
The value of the four properties, including an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City and apartments on Fisher Island, Florida, is approximately $75 million. Federal agents searched the properties in September.
Voronchenko’s role in the scheme involved the hiring of an attorney in New York City in connection with the purchase of the properties, the Justice Department said. The attorney also managed the finances of the properties, including the payment of property taxes and other fees using U.S. dollar transactions from the attorney’s account.
U.S. prosecutors allege in the indictment that shell companies owned by Vekselberg sent approximately 90 wire transfers totaling approximately $18.5 million to the attorney’s account. At the direction of Voronchenko and his family member who lived in Russia, the attorney used the funds to make various U.S. dollar payments to maintain and service the properties.
After Vekselberg’s initial designation for sanctions in 2018, the source of the funds used to maintain and service the properties changed, and the attorney’s account began to receive wires from a bank account in the Bahamas held in the name of a shell company controlled by Voronchenko, Smile Holding, and from a Russian bank account held in the name of a Russian national related to Voronchenko.
Voronchenko is charged with conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiring to commit international money laundering, and international money laundering. Each of the charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
In a related indictment unsealed on January 20, the U.S. government said it charged two businessmen -- one Russian and one Briton -- with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme in relation to a superyacht belonging to Vekselberg.
Spanish police seized the yacht following a request from the United States, which alleged that the vessel violated U.S. bank fraud, money-laundering, and sanctions statutes.
With reporting by Reuters
U.S. Approves Sale Of HIMARS Rocket Launchers, Ammunition To Poland
The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of long-range missiles and rockets to Poland in a deal valued at up to $10 billion, the Pentagon said on February 7. The sale comes as Kyiv praised U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers for battlefield successes such as destroying Russian warehouses and command posts. The package includes 18 HIMARS launchers, 45 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles, and more than 1,000 Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS) rockets. Poland would not be able to transfer any of its ATACMS to Ukraine without approval from the United States. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russia Asks Pink Floyd's Roger Waters To Speak At UN On Arms Shipments To Ukraine
Russia has asked Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, to speak to the UN Security Council on February 8 at a meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Waters was criticized by supporters of Ukraine when he published an open letter in September arguing against the Western supply of weapons to Kyiv. "Let's see what he will say. He has a position and you will hear it tomorrow," said Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia. The Security Council has met dozens of times since Russia invaded Ukraine but has been unable to take any action because Russia has veto power. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Fire Breaks Out At Drone-Making Factory In Latvia
A fire broke out on February 7 at a drone factory in Latvia that has built drones for Ukraine's military and NATO allies. Two dozen police cars, nine fire engines, and five ambulances rushed to the scene of the fire at the factory run by the U.S. company Edge Autonomy on the outskirts of Riga. The cause of the blaze was not known and no injuries were reported. "A high-risk fire has occurred in the production building, sparking a lot of smoke," the fire department said on Twitter, urging local residents to keep their doors and windows closed.
Explosion In Residential Building Kills At Least Five In Russia
An explosion in a residential building in Russia's western Tula region has killed at least five people. Emergency Department officials in the town of Yefremov said on February 7 that rescue teams continue to look for survivors or bodies at the site. According to the authorities, the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed three levels of a five-story building. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards.
Ukraine 'Disappointed' With Georgian Court's Rejection Of Saakashvili's Release Request
KYIV-- Ukraine has expressed concerns over a court decision in Tbilisi rejecting an appeal to release former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who holds Ukrainian citizenship, from prison on health grounds.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called on Georgian authorities in a statement on February 7 "to stop settling political scores with a Ukrainian citizen and ensure compliance with his rights and hand him over to Ukraine."
A day earlier, Judge Giorgi Arevadze rejected Saakashvili's request to suspend his sentence, a move Saakashvili called a "death sentence" handed to him by his political opponents.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it was "disappointed with the decision of the Tbilisi City Court."
"The court did not take into account the doctors' conclusions regarding the severity of Mikheil Saakashvili's illness," the statement said.
Saakashvili, who was Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.
Family members and his lawyers have warned for months that Saakashvili’s health condition has been deteriorating even as he receives treatment in a private clinic in Tbilisi.
His medical team says his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest his incarceration.
Saakashvili's legal team has also asserted that he was "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody.
During a hearing last week, he asked for “the opportunity for adequate treatment” by having his sentence suspended so he could be transferred abroad for more intensive care.
But Georgian officials have raised doubts about how critical his health situation is.
Saakashvili is currently on trial on separate charges of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007 and illegal border crossing.
Moscow Court Upholds Decision To Withdraw Novaya Gazeta Newspaper's License
MOSCOW -- The Moscow City Court has upheld the decision of a lower court to withdraw the licenses of the Novaya gazeta newspaper and its Novaya rasskaz-gazeta magazine, two of the last independent media outlets in the country, amid a crackdown on the free press during the Kremlin's war against Ukraine.
The court ruled on February 7 that the decision to withdraw the media outlets’ licenses by the Basmanny district court in September was correct and cannot be changed.
In November, Russian authorities blocked access to Novaya gazeta's website. Previous to that, the newspaper in March was forced to suspend publication online and in print after Russia introduced strict new censorship laws.
Shortly after the Moscow City Court pronounced its decision, Kirill Martynov, the chief editor of Novaya gazeta's project in the EU, Novaya gazeta. Europe, condemned the ruling.
"The court in Moscow just destroyed Novaya gazeta, Russia's oldest independent media outlet. We always opposed to war, our six journalists were murdered and our editor-in-chief received the Nobel Peace Prize a few months before Putin invaded Ukraine. It will not end like this," Martynov wrote on Twitter.
Russian authorities have used courts to intensify pressure on the free press since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February last year.
Novaya gazeta was founded in part with money from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and had been one of the most respected publications in post-Soviet Russia since 1993. It suspended operations inside the country in March after being forced to remove material from its website on Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine.
Some members of the paper’s staff left Russia after it stopped publishing and launched the newspaper's new project Novaya gazeta. Europe from Latvia's capital, Riga. Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked that website inside Russia as well.
Novaya gazeta’s chief editor Dmitry Muratov, a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has remained in Russia despite his vocal opposition to the conflict in Ukraine.
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moscow quickly adopted a law criminalizing the dissemination of “false” information that “discredits the armed forces.” The law has been central to a massive crackdown against dissent over the war in Russia.
Rights Watchdog Calls Iranian Government's Anniversary Celebrations 'Shameful,' Banners Burned
Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as rights group Amnesty International chided the country's leaders for "decades of mass killings and cover-ups."
Months of unrest sparked by the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for allegedly not wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf properly, have posed the greatest threat to the Islamic leadership since the revolution.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
Amnesty called the anniversary celebrations "shameful" amid decades of mass killings and cover-ups by authorities, including the current brutal treatment of protesters since Amini's death, as well as the 1988 prison massacre that saw thousands of Iranian political prisoners and others killed in mass executions across the country.
“The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained an iron grip on power for decades through the commission of horror after horror with absolute impunity," Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement dated February 6.
"The anniversary arrives amid a horrific wave of bloodshed around the latest protests, as well as arbitrary executions and death sentences targeting protesters. This highlights the need for urgent global action from countries around the world to bring Iranian officials involved in crimes under international law to justice in fair trials,” she added.
Despite the crackdown, Iranians continue to push back as they call for increased freedoms and human rights.
In the evening on February 7, neighborhoods in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad witnessed the chanting of slogans -- a nightly occurrence -- by protestors along with the burning of propaganda banners of the government celebrations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution anniversary. Similar scenes were repeated in the cities of Arak, Kermanshah, and Kerman.
In the western Iranian city of Sanandaj, a group of protesters blocked the street leading to the central prison of Sanandaj by lighting a fire and chanting anti-government slogans, including "death to the dictator," a reference to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Videos published on social media also show that, in different areas of the Iranian capital of Tehran, people chanted anti-government slogans from the windows and rooftops of residential buildings and played the song “Baraye,” which won a Grammy award for social change on February 5 and has become an anthem for the ongoing protests in Iran.
The song Baraye, which roughly translates as "because of," is based on the outpouring of public anger following Amini's death. It is composed of tweets sent by Iranians in response to the tragedy. Many of the tweets blame the country's social, economic, and political ills on the clerical regime.
Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.
Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Ukraine's Parliament Amends 2023 Budget, Raises Spending
Ukraine's parliament approved changes to the 2023 state budget that raise state spending to support small businesses and channel more funds into reconstruction and recovery projects following Russia's invasion. Roksolana Pidlasa, the head of the parliamentary budget committee, said spending was increased by 5.5 billion hryvnias ($150 million). The increase included funds to finance and modernize hospitals in Kyiv and Lviv and to rebuild bridges damaged in Russia's war on Ukraine. The amended budget also plans for 1.28 billion hryvnias in additional support for small businesses in the processing industry and state guarantees for loans in the agriculture sector. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Estonian Ambassador Leaves Russia As Deadline Expires In Tit-For-Tat Dispute
Estonian Ambassador Margus Laidre has left Moscow as requested by Russia's Foreign Ministry, Russian media reports said on February 7. Last month, Moscow demanded that Laidre leave Russia by February 7, saying the level of diplomatic representation in both countries will be reduced from ambassadors to charge d'affaires. The move came after Estonia told Russia to cut the number of diplomats it has in the Baltic nation to eight, equivalent to the number of Estonian diplomats in Moscow. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Estonia has expelled three Russian diplomats. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Iranian Clinic Shut After Doctor Defends Woman For Her Stance On Hijab
Authorities in the northeastern Iranian city of Kashmar have shut down a clinic after a confrontation between two women over wearing a head scarf, a topic that has been at the center of months of unrest since a young woman died while in police custody after being detained over how she was wearing hers.
A video that appeared on social media on February 4 shows a veiled woman warning another woman for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. A doctor at the clinic then defends the woman's right not to wear a hijab and says that her move is a symbol of protest.
"This is a criticism of the mullahs and I defend her," the doctor added in the video. The date of the recording of the video could not be independently verified.
The hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), quoted the prosecutor of Razavi Khorasan Province as saying the doctor was summoned and charged for "insulting a hijabi woman and insulting clerics," while his clinic was also sealed.
In recent weeks, numerous reports have been published about the sealing of businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases even pharmacies for owners and managers failing to observe Islamic laws and mandatory hijab rules.
The wave of closings comes amid the months-long public anger that erupted after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in September while in custody after being detained by morality police in Tehran for "improperly" wearing a head scarf.
Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Germany Urges 'Immediate' End To Nagorno-Karabakh Blockade
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on February 7 called for the reopening of a key corridor to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, after talks with her Armenian counterpart. Baerbock, whose country leads a European Union mission in the region, told reporters that the escalating humanitarian situation made it essential that the blockade by Azerbaijan "end immediately." "The supermarket shelves are almost empty, medication is lacking...family members are stuck in Armenia and can't get back to their loved ones, schoolchildren have to freeze in these icy temperatures because the energy supplies are cut off," Baerbock said. To read the original report by AFP, click here.
Swedish PM Says He's Ready To Restart NATO Talks With Turkey When Ankara Is
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on February 7 that he's ready to restart stalled negotiations over Sweden's application to join NATO as soon as Turkey is. Finland and Sweden sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and while most member states have ratified the applications, Turkey has yet to give its approval in what must be a unanimous process. The three nations last year reached an agreement on a way forward, but Ankara suspended talks last month following protests in Stockholm, where a far-right politician burned a copy of the Koran. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Nordic Countries 'Stand Firm' In Opposing Russian, Belarusian Athletes At Paris Olympics
The Olympic committees of five Nordic countries have reiterated their opposition to allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The countries said in a statement on February 7 that the situation in Ukraine has not changed.
“Therefore, we stand firm in our position, not to open for Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international sports participation,” the statement said. “Now is not the right time to consider their return; that is our position.”
The Olympic Committees and Paralympic Committees representing Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the sports confederations of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Aland issued the statement after meeting on February 3.
The statement said the committees also reaffirmed their steadfast support for the Ukrainian people and the demand for peace.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said last month that it was exploring a "pathway" to allow Russian and Belarusian competitors to take part in the Paris Olympics. Ukraine responded to that announcement by saying it would consider boycotting the Paris games.
Other European countries remain angered by the Olympic body’s statement, saying efforts to restore the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, who were banned after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last February, were ill-timed given that the military conflict continues.
The three Baltic nations and Poland last week noted the possibility that Russian and Belarusian athletes could be allowed to participate under a neutral flag. They said this would "legitimize the political decisions and extensive propaganda of these countries" and allow them to use sport as a distraction from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also criticized it, saying it would be “a legitimization of the criminal aggression against Ukraine," adding on Twitter, "We won't allow sport to be used against humanity & for war propaganda!"
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said earlier on February 7 that she was opposed to Russians competing at the Olympics in her city if the war in Ukraine was still going on.
The statement from her office represents a change in position by Hidalgo, who said last month she believed Russians could take part "under a neutral flag" to avoid "depriving athletes of competition."
With reporting by AFP
Another Group Of Karakalpak Activists Goes On Trial In Uzbekistan Over 2022 Protests
A court in Uzbekistan's southwestern city of Bukhara has started the trial of another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in unsanctioned anti-government protests in the Central Asian nation's Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan last year.
Uzbekistan's Supreme Court said on February 7 that 20 of the defendants are charged with organizing mass unrest, while seven are charged with distributing materials inciting social discord, seven others with inflicting serious bodily damage, four with the illegal use of firearms, and one person is charged with torture and blackmail.
The same court last week sentenced the first group of Karakalpak activists -- 22 individuals -- sending lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov to prison for 16 years on charges of plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.
Four defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody.
Another 17 defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between three years and 8 1/2 years. It remains unclear how the defendants pleaded.
Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General’s Office said on February 6 that one of the activists convicted last week and handed a six-year prison term, Polat Shamshetov, had died over the weekend while in custody of "thromboembolism of the pulmonary artery and acute heart failure."
Self-exiled Karakalpak activists have expressed suspicions that the 45-year-old Shamshetov might have been tortured to death in custody and have demanded a thorough investigation of his death.
Uzbek authorities say 21 people died in Karakalpakstan during the protests, which were sparked by the announcement in early July 2022 of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the region's right to self-determination.
The violence in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.
Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing away from the proposed changes.
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.
Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than 2 million people, out of a nation of 35 million, but it covers more than one-third of Uzbekistan's territory.
The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.
Ukrainian Lawmakers Appoint New Security Service Chief, Interior Minister
Ukrainian lawmakers on February 7 appointed Vasyl Malyuk to the post of chief of the Security Service (SBU) and Ihor Klymenko to the post of interior minister. Malyuk had served as the SBU's acting chief since August 2022. Klymenko had been serving as acting interior minister after his predecessor, Denys Monastyrskiy, was killed in a helicopter crash in January. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Wikipedia Unblocked In Pakistan
Wikipedia was accessible in Pakistan on February 7, days after the country’s media regulator had blocked the free online encyclopedia. Pakistan’s media regulator blocked Wikipedia services on February 3. A spokesperson told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the decision was taken after the site failed to remove purportedly blasphemous content. After an outcry, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif on February 6 ordered the site to be unblocked. Blasphemy is a sensitive subject and carries the death penalty in Pakistan, where even allegations of the offense are often enough to provoke mob violence. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.
Russian Court Reduces Sentence Of Self-Exiled Activist Shevchenko
A Russian court has cut the prison term handed down to the self-exiled former coordinator of the defunct Open Russia group, Anastasia Shevchenko, by one year, putting the sentence at two years.
Shevchenko, who fled Russia for Lithuania last summer, tweeted the court decision -- the second time that a year was cut from her original sentence -- on February 6. She gave no reason for the reduction of the sentence.
In December, a court in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don ruled in absentia to replace Shevchenko's suspended sentence with a real prison term at the Federal Penitentiary Service's request.
Shevchenko was initially handed a four-year suspended sentence in February 2021 for having links with the opposition group Open Russia. The sentence was later cut by one year.
Shevchenko was the first person in Russia charged with “repeatedly participating in the activities of an undesirable organization.” Previously, violations of this law were punished as a noncriminal offense.
Shevchenko's supporters have said the case was a politically motivated attempt to stop her activism and punish her for showing dissent publicly.
The “undesirable organization” law, adopted in May 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources.
The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Open Russia "undesirable” in 2017.
During her pretrial house arrest in January 2019, Shevchenkowas granted a furlough at the last minute to see her eldest daughter in the hospital shortly before she died of an unspecified illness.
Prosecutor Seeks Nine Years In Prison For Siberian Journalist Charged With 'Discrediting' Russian Armed Forces
A prosecutor has asked a court in the Siberian city of Barnaul to convict and sentence journalist Maria Ponomarenko to nine years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia’s armed forces with "fake" social media posts about the war in Ukraine. Ponomarenko's lawyer, Dmitry Shitov, said the prosecutor also requested the court to bar Ponomarenko from journalistic and online activities for five years. Ponomarenko was arrested in April 2022 for her online posts about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Ukraine To Receive 100 Leopard 1 Battle Tanks, German Defense Minister Says In Kyiv
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has made a surprise visit to Kyiv, where he announced that Ukraine is to receive more than 100 battle tanks of the older Leopard 1 type from Germany and two other European countries.
The tanks are to be shipped from Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark, a joint statement from the three countries said.
Pistorius said between 20 and 25 of the tanks would arrive by summer, about 80 by the end of the year, and more than 100 in 2024, according to a statement by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov's office.
The German, Dutch, and Danish defense ministries also said training and support would be provided for operation of the Leopard 1 tanks.
Pistorius, who took the job of defense minister less than three weeks ago, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov during his visit.
"Thank you to @Bundeskanzler my colleague Boris Pistorius and the German people. The tank coalition is marching...to victory!" Reznikov said on Twitter.
The decisions on the supply of Leopard 1 tanks are important to Ukraine, Zelenskiy said, adding at a press conference with Pistorius, "We do not want to give the initiative to Russia."
The German government last week said that it had approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine but the government spokesperson who made the announcement declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported.
A joint statement issued by the Economy Ministry and the Defense Ministry said the export of up to 178 Leopard 1A5 main battle tanks to Ukraine had been approved. The statement added the exact number that will be delivered "depends on the required maintenance work."
The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged to send Ukraine last month after the United States agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks. Germany initially showed reluctance to provide Leopard tanks or to allow third countries that have Leopard tanks to send them to Ukraine.
Reznikov's tweet showed him and Pistorius holding a model of the Leopard 2, saying the "first" of the pledged battle tanks had arrived in Kyiv. "There will be more of them," he added.
Ukraine has asked its Western allies for heavier weapons to confront invading Russian troops who continue to launch attacks along the front lines in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv’s military reported more attacks on February 7 as Ukrainian officials continued to warn that Moscow was preparing for a fresh offensive in the region.
Russia’s military launched six missile and 24 air strikes in the previous 24 hours, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian military early on February 7. The General Staff also reported 75 artillery strikes, including on civilian targets in the eastern and southeastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kherson. It said there had been an unspecified number of civilian casualties.
Later, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk regional military administration, reported that one person had been killed and five wounded as a result of overnight shelling in the Donetsk region.
The General Staff also said that 1,030 Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine over the 24-hour period, although such casualty figures are impossible to verify.
The fresh fighting comes after Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said that Russia is deploying reinforcements in eastern Ukraine ahead of a possible new offensive.
"We are seeing more and more [Russian] reserves being deployed in our direction, we are seeing more equipment being brought in," Hayday told Ukrainian television on February 6.
"They bring ammunition that is used differently than before -- it is not round-the-clock shelling anymore. They are slowly starting to save, getting ready for a full-scale offensive," Hayday claimed.
Britain's Defense Intelligence said in its daily report on February 7 that Russia's military has likely attempted since early January to restart major offensive operations aimed at capturing Ukraine-held parts of Donetsk.
However, Russian forces have gained little territory as they "lack munitions and maneuver units required for a successful offensive", it said.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces are fighting attempts by Russian troops to surround the city of Bakhmut and break the city's defenses.
Intense fighting has been raging for weeks around Bakhmut and the nearby towns of Soledar and Vuhledar, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on February 7 that military operations were "progressing with success" in areas around Vuhledar and Bakhmut. Speaking during a meeting with defense officials, he named seven other settlements in the Donetsk region that Russian forces had recently "liberated," including Soledar.
With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters
Almost 8 Million People Have Fled Ukraine, UN Aid Chief Says
The UN's emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said that nearly 8 million people have fled Ukraine since the beginning of Russia's invasion almost a year ago. Almost 8 million people fled from Ukraine to neighboring countries, while another 5.3 million are internally displaced, Griffiths told the UN Security Council in New York on February 6. The head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that 17.6 million people, or almost 40 percent of Ukraine's population, need humanitarian assistance.
Russian Pleads Guilty In U.S. On Money-Laundering Charge
Russian citizen Denis Dubnikov pleaded guilty on February 6 to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to the U.S. District Court of Oregon. Dubnikov is scheduled to be sentenced on April 11. The Russian national, who had been sought by U.S. prosecutors for allegedly laundering cryptocurrency tied to a notorious ransomware gang, was extradited to the United States from the Netherlands in August. U.S. prosecutors accuse Dubnikov and his co-conspirators of laundering the proceeds of ransomware attacks. They allegedly laundered $400,000 in payments from victims of Ryuk, a ransomware gang believed to have extracted $70 million from individuals and companies around the world, including in the United States.
U.S. Vice President To Map Out Next Steps To Aid Ukraine At Munich Security Conference
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to discuss Washington's future support for Ukraine when she travels to a major security conference in Germany next week. Harris will travel to the Munich Security Conference, scheduled to begin on February 16, as Ukraine readies itself for a new Russian offensive. A White House official said Harris will use her speech to celebrate the courage of the Ukrainian people, reaffirm international support for the country, condemn Russia's actions, reaffirm Washington's mutual defense commitments under NATO, and "outline the path forward" on Ukraine. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Ukraine's Zelenskiy Invited To Take Part In EU Summit
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been invited to take part in a summit of European Union leaders, the EU said on February 6. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, invited Zelenskiy "to participate in person in a future summit," Michel spokesman Barend Leyts tweeted. Leyts did not say when Zelenskiy might take up the invitation and specified that no further information would be provided "for security reasons." The next EU summit is scheduled to take place on February 9-10 in Brussels. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
In Ukraine's Donbas, Intensifying Russian Offensives -- An Omen Of Things To Come?2
'They Will Send The Army To Ukraine': Bulgarian Social Media Flooded With Rumors Of Military Draft3
Interview: Writer Vladimir Sorokin Says Russia's Unresolved Historical Traumas Have Now 'Taken The Form Of War'4
Denounced By Her Classmates, Anti-War Russian Teen Faces A Long Prison Term5
Russia's 2021 Census Results Raise Red Flags Among Experts And Ethnic-Minority Activists6
'I Couldn't Just Stand By': Russian Fighters Explain Why They Took Up Arms Against The Kremlin7
Ukraine Will Hold Bakhmut, Zelenskiy Vows, Amid Warnings About New Offensive In The East8
The Week In Russia: Stalingrad And A 'Stupid, Criminal War'9
European Ban On Russian Diesel, Other Oil Products Takes Effect10
Situation 'Very Difficult' In East, Zelenskiy Says, As Ukraine Calls Again For Jets, Weapons