Wagner Group and close air cover because of the proximity to the Russian border. They can also rely on separatist fighters and a well-financed network of citizen-spies who relay secret information to the invaders, often with devastating consequences.

Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, out of office. Mr. Yanukovych came from a Donbas steel town. In one stroke, Russia lost its ally and the Donbas elite its godfather. That is when the trouble started.

People flooded into the Donbas streets waving Russian flags. At first, said Alisa Sopova, a journalist for a Donbas newspaper at the time, “We were sure they were fake people brought in from Russia to pose for Russian TV.”

to speak so much Russian. A critical aspect of Ukrainian independence was reviving the Ukrainian language, marginalized during Soviet times. But those arguments were typically confined to social media posts or intellectual debates, until this moment.

“I’d go into the supermarket to buy some meat, and the shopkeeper tells me, ‘If you don’t speak Ukrainian, I’m not going to sell you any meat,’” Mr. Tsyhankov said. “I’ve been speaking Russian my whole life. How do you think that made me feel?”

done something similar in 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions of Georgia, and before that the Russians had meddled in Moldova, backing the breakaway Transnistria region. The tools were generally the same: bankrolling pro-Russia political parties; deploying intelligence agents to foment protests; sowing disinformation through Russian TV.

Mr. Putin’s strategy was to turn strategic slices of the former Soviet Union into separatist hotbeds to hobble young nations like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, all struggling to break free from Moscow and move closer to Europe.

Under the Kremlin’s wing, Donbas’s separatists killed Ukrainian officials, took territory and declared the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. When Ukrainian forces rolled in to quell the rebellion, some residents saw them as occupiers. They spoke a different language, hailed from a different region, embraced a different culture — or so went the pro-Russia narrative. In some villages, babushkas lay down in the roads blocking Ukrainian tanks, officers said, and in one, an especially cunning babushka kept stealing the soldiers’ helmets.

“It was frustrating,” said Anatolii Mohyla, a Ukrainian military commander. “We’d come to liberate them and they’d give us the finger.”

Mr. Putin dispatched thousands of Russian troops to support the separatists, later saying he had been “forced to protect” the Russian-speaking population. Towns like Chasiv Yar were occupied by separatist fighters, then liberated by Ukrainian troops a few months later. By 2015, the heavy fighting had died down. But it was not like Mr. Putin forgot about the Donbas.

He upped the ante in 2021, saying, “Kyiv simply does not need the Donbas.” And on Feb. 21 of this year, three days before he invaded Ukraine, Mr. Putin accused the Ukrainian government of perpetrating a “genocide.” He justified the most cataclysmic war in decades by citing the very tensions he himself stoked.

In early April, the agricultural land around Chasiv Yar began to thaw. Mr. Khainus, the pro-Ukraine farmer, drove out to check a sunflower field. A Ukrainian military vehicle raced up. A soldier leaned out the window and fired an assault rifle, the bullets skipping up in the dirt. Mr. Khainus slammed on the brakes.

A Ukrainian commander he recognized, a man whom Mr. Khainus said he had complained about before, jumped out. The commander greeted him with a punch to the head, Mr. Khainus said, and then smashed him in the face with a rifle butt.

He does not remember much after that. He shared photographs of himself lying in a hospital bed with two black eyes. Military and law enforcement officials declined to comment.

Mr. Khainus remains a supporter of the military, saying, “One stupid person doesn’t represent the army.”

But, he added wryly: “It’s one thing to be a patriot in Kyiv. It’s another to be a patriot in the Donbas.”

At 9 p.m. on July 9, four cruise missiles slammed into a dormitory at the old ceramic plant. The buildings crumbled as if they were made out of sand. Viacheslav Boitsov, an emergency services official, said there were “no military facilities nearby.”

But according to Mr. Mohyla and Oleksandr Nevydomskyi, another Ukrainian military officer, Ukrainian soldiers were staying in that building. The night before, they said, a mysterious man was seen standing outside flashing light signals, most likely pinpointing the position.

The military calls such spies “correctors,” and they relay navigational information to the Russians to make missile and artillery strikes more precise. Ukrainian officials have arrested more than 20 and say correctors are often paid several hundred dollars after a target is hit. The strike in Chasiv Yar was one of the deadliest: 48 killed, including 18 soldiers, the officers said.

“For sure there are Russian agents in this town,” Mr. Mohyla said. “There might even be spies in our unit.”

Few in Chasiv Yar are confident that the town will stay in government hands.

Mr. Khainus said the Russians were steadily moving closer to his sunflower fields. About a week ago, a friend’s house was shelled. A day later, in an online messaging channel, separatist supporters said Mr. Khainus should be next, calling him a “hero” — adding an epithet.

Is he scared?

“Why should I be?” he said. “They’re nobodies.”

Mr. Tsyhankov, the retired dump truck driver nostalgic for the Soviet times, seemed pained by all of the bloodshed but did not blame the Russians or the separatists. “They’re doing the right thing,” he said. “They’re fighting for the Russian language and their territory.”

As he said goodbye, insisting that his guests take with them a jug of his homemade apple juice and some fresh green grapes, he shook his head at the enormity of it. “Why can’t we be friends with you guys, the Americans?” he asked. “Politics are keeping all of us hostage.”

Every night, the horizon in Chasiv Yar lights up with explosions. Ukrainian soldiers operate here almost as if they are on enemy territory, hiving themselves off from the public, watching their backs, traveling by night in long convoys of cars with the lights blacked out, the drivers wearing night vision goggles. According to separatist messaging channels, the Wagner mercenaries have reached the outskirts of Bakhmut, a major Donbas town. As for Soledar, it is now off limits to journalists, but volunteers there trying to rescue civilians say it is as deadly as ever.

People here used to describe the Donbas in simple terms like “beautiful,” “honest,” “unbreakable” and “free.”

Now it is destroyed, depopulated, sad and empty.

“It’s like the Rust Belt,” Ms. Sopova said. “It’s not needed anymore. All that industry is obsolete.”

Countless communities have risen in the Donbas. Many are now falling. Ms. Sopova glimpses a perhaps not so faraway future where the Donbas goes back to what it once was: a wild field.

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.

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Scholz promises 65 bln euros to shield Germans through tough winter

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  • Package funded through additional tax revenue
  • Gas stores now 85% full
  • Scholz promises welfare state will shield Germany from turmoil

BERLIN, Sept 4 (Reuters) – Germany will spend at least 65 billion euros ($64.7 billion) on shielding customers and businesses from soaring inflation, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday, two days after Russia announced it was suspending some gas deliveries indefinitely.

The measures, agreed after 22 hours of talks between the three coalition parties, included benefit hikes and a public transport subsidy, to be paid for from a tax on electricity companies and by bringing forward Germany’s implementation of the planned 15% global minimum corporate tax.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has led to inflation worldwide and prompted warnings of social and economic turmoil as the world weans itself off cheap energy and flexible global supply chains.

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In Germany, where year-on-year inflation was running at 7.9% in August, the effect has been exacerbated by Russia’s reduction in volumes of gas pumped to the country, which has caused a surge in the price of energy fuelling Europe’s largest economy.

“Russia is no longer a reliable energy partner,” Scholz told a news conference, adding that Germany’s earlier preparations meant that it would get through the winter heating season.

Gas stores reached 85% of capacity on Saturday, almost a month ahead of schedule, partly thanks to corporate consumers cutting consumption.

But while supplies were sufficient, the government would need to help shield consumers and businesses from the higher costs, he said.

“You’ll never walk alone,” he added, switching to English to recite a song famously adopted by fans of English soccer club Liverpool.

The energy crunch came into sharper relief when Russia’s state-controlled energy giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) said on Friday that it was keeping closed its main Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the biggest single pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany.

Scholz rejected suggestions that losing the steady flows of cheap Russian gas off which Germany has prospered for dedcades could herald a new, darker era for his country.

“Germany will come through this time as a democracy because we are very economically strong and we are a welfare state: the two together are important,” he told ZDF television. “With every new windpark, we will become more independent.”

The latest package brings to 95 billion euros the amount allocated to inflation-busting since the Ukraine war began in February. By contrast, the government spent 300 billion euros on propping up the economy over the two years of the pandemic.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner said the 65 billion announced on Sunday could be increased if electricity prices rose further. The windfall tax – dubbed a “coincidence tax” to assuage his party’s objections to the original term – would bring in revenue in the “two-digit billions”, he said.

Part of the proceeds would be used to offer 1.7 billion euros in tax breaks to 9,000 energy intensive companies, a government document showed.

($1 = 1.0049 euros)

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Reporting by Thomas Escritt
Editing by David Goodman and Frances Kerry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomas Escritt

Thomson Reuters

Berlin correspondent who has investigated anti-vaxxers and COVID treatment practices, reported on refugee camps and covered warlords’ trials in The Hague. Earlier, he covered Eastern Europe for the Financial Times. He speaks Hungarian, German, French and Dutch.

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The Meaning Behind Pope Francis’ Meeting With Transgender People

Some say Pope Francis’s meeting with transgender people may not translate into doctrinal change, but it could lead to cultural acceptance.

Father James Martin has taken his message of prayer and inclusivity just about everywhere, from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to the halls of the Vatican.

In May, he wrote to Pope Francis with a few questions.

“I just wanted to give him a time to briefly talk to LGBTQ Catholics,” Martin said.

Francis has extended apologies to the abused and a welcome to the historically rejected. According to the Vatican News, he recently met with transgender people near Rome, Italy.

So Martin’s questions aren’t so random.

“I asked him, ‘What would you most like them to know about the church?'” Martin said. “He said, ‘Read Acts of the Apostles,’ which was really interesting because there’s a church that’s kind of mixing it up. Then also, ‘What would you say to an LGBTQ Catholic who felt rejected by the church?’ And he said very interestingly to remember that it’s not the church that rejects you, the church loves you, but it might be individual people in the church.”

It isn’t the first time Francis has corresponded directly with Martin on LGBTQ relations or the first time he has spoken up about their place within the Catholic church.

In 2016, Francis agreed the church should apologize to not only gay people but other marginalized groups, like the poor. He’s also called for parents to accept their LGBTQ children.

Francis’ gestures are one thing; changing church doctrine, which teaches that the act of homosexuality is sinful, is another.

“What would have happened really, in a sense, is for theologians working together, along with church officials, to come to some newer understanding of how they can accommodate for older church teaching on these issues, to show that the church evolves rather than dramatically changing,” said Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “Because the church is not going to say, ‘Oh, we were wrong.’ It’s very rare.”

“If he were to do that, which I don’t think Pope Francis will, but if he were to do that, he would not want to do it without support from the Curia and the College of Cardinals,” said Cristina Traina, professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University. “He would not want to do it without tracing a pathway theologically.”

Instead, Francis has gone another direction: one met with both criticism and praise, uplifting LGBTQ Catholics while simultaneously reiterating church doctrine.  

NEWSY’S AMBER STRONG: Is he sort of riding the line between saying that this is doctrine, and doctrines not going to change. But, we also still need to love and affirm people as well?

FATHER JAMES MARTIN: I think that’s a good question, and I think he is kind of trying to straddle that line. But I think one thing to remember is that what seems very bland and tepid in the United States — overseas is a big deal. In the U.S., we might say, ‘Oh, big deal. Of course, you should welcome your kids.’ If you’re in Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America or India, that’s a big deal. So, we have to remember that he’s speaking to the whole church.”

According to Pew Research, 76% of U.S. Catholics say society should be accepting of homosexuality. That’s below the rate of Catholic support in countries like Spain and the Netherlands but far higher than places like Lebanon and Nigeria.

Some theologians argue that Francis’ support could have a trickle-down impact on individual Catholics and parishes.

“These things can do a lot to encourage Catholics to embrace LGBTQ people with love and compassion and mercy and not to see them as the Antichrist, the anathema, the enemy of salvation,” Traina said.

In 2021, a group of catholic leaders, including a cardinal and archbishop, signed a statement calling for widespread support of at-risk LGBTQ youth. According to an NCR analysis of recent listening sessions among U.S. Catholics, there was a growing call for LGBTQ inclusion and more opportunities for women.  

“To me, there’s no such thing as an empty gesture because, yes, many times people want to see more clear cut evidence of change and of their acceptance within the church, but sometimes it’s in small steps,” Dillon said.

In 2021, Martin, a Vatican appointee under Francis, launched Outreach: a website that provides resources to LGBTQ Catholics and leaders. It’s an effort Pope Francis has encouraged.

“He hasn’t changed any church teaching,” Martin said. “I’m not advocating for any church teaching, but he’s advocated a more pastoral response, listening to them, welcoming them, treating them with the respect.

Source: newsy.com

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Live Updates: Ukraine Estimates Sharply Higher Russian Casualty Toll in Crimea Blasts

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers scurried around the howitzer in a field one recent morning. In a flurry of activity, one man lugged a 106-pound explosive shell from a truck to the gun. Another, using a wooden pole, shoved it into the breach.

“Loaded!” the soldier shouted, then knelt on the ground and covered his ears with his hands.

The gun fired with a thunderous boom. A cloud of smoke wafted up. Leaves fluttered down from nearby trees. The shell sailed off toward the Russians with a metallic shriek.

It is a scene repeated thousands of times daily along the frontline in Ukraine: artillery duels and long-range strikes from both sides on targets ranging from infantry to fuel depots to tanks.

And what followed the salvo fired on Wednesday morning in eastern Ukraine was also indicative of the rhythm of this war: a coffee break.

This is a war fought in a cycle of opposites — bursts of chaos from outgoing or incoming shelling, and then long lulls in which soldiers undertake the most routine activities. Fighters who minutes before unleashed destructive weapons with a thunderous roar settled in a grove of oak trees around a picnic table of wooden ammunition boxes, boiling water on a camp stove and pouring cups of instant coffee.

They rested in an oak forest, overlooking a field of tall green grass and purple flowering thistles. Elsewhere, soldiers used a lull to smoke or get a haircut.

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

On a recent visit, soldiers from the 58th Brigade fighting in and around the city of Bakhmut, where the artillery war is raging, were both attacking and under attack from artillery.

All about on the rolling, grassy hills west of Bakhmut, puffs of brown smoke rose from incoming Russian strikes, aimed at Ukraine’s artillery positions.

The pivotal importance of long-range fire was one reason the United States and other allies rushed NATO-caliber howitzers to Ukraine. Its military is close to depleting the entire stock of Soviet-legacy shells in its own arsenal and from allied countries in Eastern Europe, and it is now shifting to more abundant NATO ammunition.

Russia has vast supplies of artillery ammunition but indications are surfacing that it is dipping into older reserves that more frequently do not detonate on impact.

The Soviet-legacy howitzer the Ukrainian team fires, a model called the D-20 that is nicknamed the “fishing lure,” has held up well, said the commander, Lieutenant Oleksandr Shakin. American-provided long-range weaponry such as the M777 howitzer and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, have extended the reach of Ukraine’s army, but the bulk of the arsenal is still Soviet-era guns.

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The cannon they fired was made in 1979, he said, and most of the shells were from the 1980s. Still, Lt. Shakin said, “They have not let me down yet.’’

Typically, he said, he fires around 20 shells a day from each gun, conserving Ukraine’s dwindling supply of 152 millimeter ammunition.

“We have a lot of motivation,” said Captain Kostyantin Viter, an artillery officer. “In front of us are our infantry and we have to cover them. Behind us are our families.”

Inside the city of Bakhmut on Wednesday, at a position where soldiers of the 58th Brigade are garrisoned in an abandoned municipal building, the whistles of their colleagues’ shells could be heard sailing overhead — aimed at Russian forces to the east of town.

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

The soldiers stood in a courtyard, smoking and listening to the whizzing of shells overhead and thuds of explosions in the distance.

The buzzing of electric clippers filled the air, too, as one soldier gave another a haircut. A few trucks were parked in the yard and a dozen or so soldiers milled about.

Half an hour or so on, a new noise joined the background of distant booms: the clang of nearby explosions. What had been a languid summer morning became a scene of chaos.

Soldiers dashed for cover or dove to the ground. After a dozen or so booms, it was over. An acrid smoke wafted over the courtyard, and shards of glass lay about. “Is everybody alive?” a soldier shouted.

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

All of the soldiers who had been in the yard escaped unhurt. But the Russian rocket strike killed seven civilians and wounded six others in the neighborhood near the soldiers’ base, the authorities reported later.

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Illegal Logging Is Rampant. Can IKEA Help Slow It Down?

IKEA and other major furniture retailers get much of their wood from forests crucial for biodiversity, stripping land of trees faster than is healthy.

IKEA is one of the largest furniture retailers in the world and a leader in a booming global furniture market. The market hit an estimated value of over $490 billion last year.

The IKEA brand in particular is known for its pretty affordable products, but there are a lot of unseen costs that go into supplying cheap, mass-produced wooden furniture to major retailers — namely costs from how and where that wood gets harvested.

Eastern Europe and Russia offer a huge supply of high-quality and high-value woods like spruce and beech, and countries like Ukraine and Romania are home to huge old-growth forests. Old growth forests are well sought after but also some of the most important to protect. They’re particularly crucial for biodiversity, and old trees absorb carbon dioxide at higher rates than younger ones.

Now, estimates vary, but one environmental watchdog group determined more than half of IKEA’s wood supply comes from that region. To be clear, IKEA is far from the only major furniture supplier here, but it is arguably the biggest: The company alone is the largest individual consumer of wood in the world and doubled its consumption in the last decade.

IKEA has said before that “under no circumstances” would they accept wood that doesn’t meet their sustainability requirements. They’ve also taken action against problematic suppliers before.

To balance the growing global demand for wood with conservation of these crucial forests, the EU and national governments have established massive protected areas, and quotas limiting how much of a certain wood gets harvested.

These protections, by the way, apply to both public and private land. That’s important to note because IKEA itself is the largest private landowner in Romania. It owns about 83,000 acres — that’s almost 63,000 football fields-worth of land. It made this massive purchase back in 2015, buying from the previous owner, the Harvard Endowment Fund.

But despite the legal limits and forest management, the woods of Eastern Europe are vanishing much faster than they should be, and it’s only ramping up.

Maps form Global Forest Watch show the total tree cover loss in Ukraine, Russia and Romania over the past two decades.  

Part of this is due to deforestation, legally or otherwise. In 2018, for example, the Romanian government licensed about 18.5 million cubic meters of wood to be harvested, but instead, about 38.6 million was taken — more than twice the legal limit. 

“It’s also a breakdown of the sort of European laws meant to deal with this,” said David Gehl, manager for traceability and technologies at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Romania designated quite large amounts of its forest as protected areas. They never created the implementing regulations to actually implement those laws.”

So, how is this happening right under regulators’ noses? 

The problems often start early in the supply chain. For example, loggers can use false documentation to hide the amount or quality of the wood they’re harvesting. Sometimes it’s as simple as submitting unclear or misleading photos to the local government’s tracking system, obscuring how much wood is really being harvested. Then, the illegal wood is taken to a log depot, where it often gets mixed in with legal wood. 

Enforcing rules on the ground becomes next to impossible thanks to what the press has dubbed the so-called “Timber Mafia,” which is a group well-ingrained in local communities.  

“There’s many excellent Romanian news reports and investigative reports about this, and many interviews, for example, with police officers who are just admitting very clearly on camera that they cannot touch these people,” Gehl said.

Standing up to illegal loggers is dangerous work. Like other hotspots for illegal logging in the world, a number of forest managers, rangers, activists and journalists have been attacked or even killed throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. In Romania alone, at least six forest rangers have been killed in recent years, with 650 incidents of people being beaten, shot at or attacked in relation to illegal logging.

So how can furniture retailers ensure the wood they’re using was safely and legally sourced? 

Furnishers often rely on something called the Forest Stewardship Certification, or FSC, to vet the sourcing for wood products. Third-party companies can be hired to conduct an audit along the supply chain — from the log depots to sawmills and more. They can award an FSC certification if the work there seems legit.

But critics have pointed out some central flaws to the audit process and warned FSC certifications may be giving a false sense of security.

“There’s this kind of conflict of interest because IKEA is paying directly for an FSC certificate,” said Tara Ganesh, head of investigations at Earthsight. “So this does not create much incentive for these auditors to independently look for problems because, in effect, these auditing companies within Russia are all competing for business from companies like IKEA.”

“So we’ve talked to some certifying bodies that have said, you know, ‘I was commissioned by this company. I spent three days in the forest. I gave them this list of 20 things that they would need to change to get their certification,'” Gehl said. “They said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and three days later, they got their certification from a different company.”

There have been a number of separate investigations throughout Eastern Europe which found illegal timber processing at partners with IKEA, all of which were FSC-certified.

The U.K. watchdog group Earthsight published two reports showing illegal wood from forests in Ukraine and Russia has been widely used in popular IKEA furniture lines.

“It was a combination of looking at shipment records and undercover work calls to the suppliers concerned to try to get admissions from them about various practices and their links to IKEA,” Ganesh said. “It was also in both cases in Ukraine and in Russia. There’s actually a lot of information that’s available publicly, which is fantastic. But also then begs the question that if we could find it, why did it take IKEA so long to find that, or FSC, for that matter?”

IKEA’s response was to defend its reliance on FSC certifications. The company insisted it was improving its system of “due diligence” checks. Newsy reached out to IKEA and the Forest Stewardship Council for a response on this but didn’t hear back.

“I think IKEA is doing perhaps more than any other large wood processor in the world,” Gehl said. “The problem is that the status quo, the bar of the status quo, is so low that even though they’re doing better than that status quo, that’s still very far from what is necessary to make sure that they’re not getting illegal wood.”

It’s hard to know where to start with a system like this: the danger for those working on the ground, the corruption along supply chains, the documented abuse of the FSC labels. What these problems really come down to is a lack of enforcement.

Source: newsy.com

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In Rare Contact, U.S. Offers Russia Deal For Griner And Whelan

By Associated Press

and Newsy Staff
July 27, 2022

It is unclear what the deal is, or whether it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans.

The U.S. has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The statement marked the first time the U.S. government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, and it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia, reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.

Blinken said Washington would like a response from Moscow. Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. U.S. officials said the the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov.

Should the call take place, it would be the first conversation that Blinken and Lavrov have held since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a UN-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.

Griner, in Russian custody for the last month, acknowledged in court this month that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.

At her trial Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage additional hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Marine veteran Trevor Reed was traded for jailed Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future and the Biden administration has been hounded with political pressure to bring home Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.

There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly recognized contact was Feb. 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert the Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter. The State Department said later that Russia’s diplomacy was “Kabuki Theater” — all show and no substance.

The two last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military build-up along Ukraine’s border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in eastern Europe and permanently deny Ukraine membership. The U.S. rejected the Russian demands.

Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month at the next time they were in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations in Bali, Indonesia.

The two men will next be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both be attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear if the phone call ahead of that meeting, set for Aug. 4-5, would presage an in-person discussion.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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Ukraine Updates: Turkey Agrees to Allow Sweden and Finland to Join NATO

Credit…Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

MADRID — NATO leaders will formally invite Finland and Sweden to join the alliance on Wednesday after Turkey lifted its veto on their membership, NATO’s secretary-general said Tuesday evening, clearing the way for what would be one of the most significant expansions of the alliance in decades.

The historic deal, following Turkey’s agreement to a memorandum with the two Nordic countries, underscored how the war in Ukraine has backfired for President Vladimir V. Putin, subverting Russian efforts to weaken NATO and pushing Sweden and Finland, which were neutral and nonaligned for decades, into the alliance’s arms.

After weeks of talks, capped by an hourslong meeting in Madrid, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey agreed to lift his block on Sweden and Finland’s membership in return for a set of actions and promises that they will act against terrorism and terrorist organizations.

“As NATO allies, Finland and Sweden commit to fully support Turkey against threats to its national security,” NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, providing some details of the agreement. “This includes further amending their domestic legislation, cracking down on P.K.K. activities and entering into an agreement with Turkey on extradition,” he added, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which seeks an independent Kurdish state on territory partly within Turkey’s borders.

Mr. Erdogan had been blocking the Nordic countries’ NATO bids amid concerns over Sweden’s longtime support for the P.K.K. which has attacked nonmilitary targets and killed civilians in Turkey, is outlawed in that country and is designated by both the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

But the memorandum does not specify the extradition of any of the 45 people or so Mr. Erdogan wanted sent to Turkey to face trial on terrorism charges. Sweden has already passed tougher legislation against terrorism that goes into effect July 1.

Both Finland and Sweden had been militarily nonaligned for many years, but decided to apply to join the alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. With Russia attacking a neighbor, both countries felt vulnerable, though Sweden, with a long tradition of neutrality, was more hesitant.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia warned both countries against joining NATO, but his threats proved counterproductive.

The two countries bring geostrategic benefits to the alliance. Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia and has a well-equipped modern army; Sweden can control the entrance to the Baltic Sea, which will help a great deal in NATO planning to defend the more vulnerable countries in Eastern Europe.

The final push to resolve the dispute started early Tuesday morning, when President Biden called Mr. Erdogan to urge him to “seize the moment” on the eve of the summit, to allow discussions on other topics to proceed, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the discussion.

The official, who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said the president conveyed the substance of his conversation with Mr. Erdogan to the leaders of Finland and Sweden. And after several hours of negotiations later that night, the two Nordic leaders consulted with Mr. Biden again before announcing the agreement with Turkey.

The American official said that the deal between Turkey and the two Nordic countries involved a series of compromises on both sides, including the statement by Turkey welcoming Finland and Sweden to apply and issues involving an arms embargo imposed on Turkey and Turkey’s belief that Finland and Sweden had offered safe havens to groups they considered terrorists.

American officials had for days played down Mr. Biden’s role in the negotiations, saying he would not be a broker between the other countries and insisted that it was up to Turkey, Finland and Sweden to resolve their differences.

After the agreement was announced Tuesday night, the senior administration official conceded that it was considered more diplomatic to publicly minimize Mr. Biden’s involvement. Doing so prevented Turkey from seeking concessions from the United States for agreeing to lift its veto, which might have complicated the discussions, the official said.

The next steps for Finland and Sweden are clear: NATO will vote on Wednesday to accept their applications. There will also be a quick study of their defense capacities and needs. But the talks are expected to be routine, since both countries are NATO partners and have exercised together with NATO allies.

The more difficult last step requires the legislatures of all 30 current members to vote to amend the NATO founding treaty to accept the new members. That has in the past taken up to a year, but is expected to be much quicker for the Nordic countries.

The U.S. Senate is already pressing ahead with hearings on the application and Mr. Biden has been a firm proponent of the new members.

Johanna Lemola contributed reporting from Helsinki, Finland.

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Ukraine News: Civilians Are Urged to Flee Russian-Occupied Areas in South

Credit…Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said during a surprise trip to Ukraine on Tuesday that a veteran prosecutor known for investigating former Nazis would lead American efforts in tracking Russian war criminals.

Mr. Garland’s visit, part of scheduled stops in Poland and Paris this week, was intended to bolster U.S. and international support in helping Ukraine identify, apprehend and prosecute Russians involved in war crimes and other atrocities.

His overseas travel comes at a particularly tense moment in his tenure at the Justice Department, on a day of dramatic congressional testimony about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that prompted many Democrats to renew their call for him to prosecute former President Donald J. Trump and his allies.

Mr. Garland met for an hour with Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, in the village of Krakovets, about a mile from the border with Poland, to discuss the technical, forensic and legal support that the United States could provide, department officials said.

“The United States is sending an unmistakable message” to those who have committed atrocities, Mr. Garland said: “There is no place to hide.”

“We will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable,” he added.

After the meeting, Mr. Garland said he was tapping Eli Rosenbaum, the former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, to create a war crimes accountability team that would work with Ukraine and international law enforcement groups.

Mr. Rosenbaum, 67, is best known for his work for the World Jewish Congress in the 1980s investigating the hidden history of Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary general whose army unit was implicated in war crimes against Jews and Yugoslavian partisans during World War II.

His work, during a 36-year career in the department, and in stints outside government, earned him the nickname “Nazi hunter” from historians, a sobriquet he dislikes.

In the department’s criminal division, Mr. Rosenbaum has also been instrumental in the prosecution and deportation of Nazis living in the United States and Jews who committed atrocities against their own people in concentration camps. In recent years, his portfolio has taken on a broader mission, as former Nazis die off, and now includes a wider array of human rights cases, at home and abroad.

The new team will include Justice Department staff members and outside experts. In addition to offering assistance to Ukrainian officials, the department said in a statement that Mr. Rosenbaum would investigate “potential war crimes over which the U.S. possesses jurisdiction, such as the killing and wounding of U.S. journalists covering the unprovoked Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

This line of work is, in a sense, part of Mr. Rosenbaum’s family business. His father, Irving, escaped Dresden in 1938, the year of the Kristallnacht attacks against Germany’s Jewish population, joined the U.S. Army, eventually served in an intelligence unit that interrogated German soldiers — and collected information at the Dachau concentration camp.

Mr. Rosenbaum was set to retire before Mr. Garland asked him about a week ago to lead the new unit. He agreed immediately, according to a senior Justice Department official with knowledge of the exchange.

The department is also assigning additional personnel to expand its work with Ukraine and other partners to counter Russian use of illicit financial methods to evade international sanctions — detailing a Justice Department expert to advise Ukraine on fighting kleptocracy, corruption and money laundering, officials said.

“We will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable,” added Mr. Garland, whose own family immigrated to the United States after fleeing antisemitic pogroms in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.

After stopping in Poland, Mr. Garland flew on to Paris, where he was scheduled to join the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, in a series of bilateral meetings with European counterparts to discuss efforts to combat terrorism and carry out a strategy of holding Russia accountable for its brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Garland and Ms. Venediktova last met in May in Washington.

In April, Mr. Garland and the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, said they would work with investigators and prosecutors in Ukraine, a signal that the Biden administration intended to follow through on its public condemnation of atrocities committed by Russian forces that have been documented during the war.

His team has also been working with the State Department to provide logistical support and advice to Ms. Venediktova and the leaders of other ministries in Ukraine.

“We’ve seen and have determined that a number of war crimes have been committed by Russia’s forces,” Beth Van Schaack, the State Department’s ambassador at large for global criminal justice, said at a briefing in Washington last week.

“What we are seeing is not the results of a rogue unit,” she added, “but rather a pattern and practice across all the areas in which Russia’s forces are engaged.”

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Europe steps up support for Ukraine as Russia presses offensive

  • Ukraine EU candidacy signals major shift in European geopolitics
  • ‘Europe can create a new history of freedom’ Zelenskiy says
  • Battle for Sievierodonetsk grinds on
  • Ukraine claims strike on Russian tugboat

BRUSSELS/KYIV, Ukraine, June 17 (Reuters) – The European Union gave its blessing on Friday for Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova to become candidates to join, in the most dramatic geopolitical shift to result from Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine applied to join the EU just four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Four days later, so did Moldova and Georgia – smaller ex-Soviet states also contending with separatist regions occupied by Russian troops.

“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” the EU’s executive Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels. She made the announcement wearing Ukrainian colours, a yellow blazer over a blue shirt.

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President Voloymyr Zelenskiy thanked von der Leyen and EU member states on Twitter for a decision he called “the first step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our victory closer”.

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu hailed a “strong signal of support for Moldova & our citizens!” and said she counted on the support of EU member states.

“We’re committed to working hard,” she said on Twitter.

While recommending candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission held off for Georgia, which it said must meet more conditions first.

Von der Leyen said Georgia has a strong application but had to come together politically. A senior diplomat close to the process cited setbacks in reforms there.

Leaders of EU countries are expected to endorse the decision at a summit next week. The leaders of the three biggest – Germany, France and Italy – had signalled their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv, along with the president of Romania.

“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Germany’s Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Ukraine and Moldova will still face a lengthy process to achieve the standards required for membership, and there are other candidates in the waiting room. Nor is membership guaranteed – talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, officially a candidate since 1999.

But launching the candidacy process, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just months ago, amounts to a shift on par with the decision in the 1990s to welcome the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

“Precisely because of the bravery of the Ukrainians, Europe can create a new history of freedom, and finally remove the grey zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU’s largest country by area and its fifth most populous. All three hopefuls are far poorer than any existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the poorest, Bulgaria.

All have recent histories of volatile politics, domestic unrest, entrenched organised crime, and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow’s troops.

PORT BLOCKADE

President Vladimir Putin ordered his “special military operation” officially to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. One of his main objectives was to halt the expansion of Western institutions which he called a threat to Russia.

But the war, which has killed thousands of people, destroyed whole cities and set millions to flight, has had the opposite effect. Finland and Sweden have applied to join the NATO military alliance, and the EU has opened its arms to the east.

Within Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to storm the capital in March, but have since refocused on seizing more territory in the east.

The nearly four-month-old war has entered a punishing attritional phase, with Russian forces relying on their massive advantage in artillery firepower to blast their way into Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out in Sievierodonetsk, site of the worst fighting of recent weeks, on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. It was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians who are trapped inside a chemical plant, the regional governor said.

In the surrounding Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies, Ukrainian forces are mainly defending the river’s opposite bank.

Near the frontline in the ruins of the small city of Marinka, Ukrainian police made their way into a cellar searching for anyone who wanted help to evacuate. A group of mainly elderly residents huddled on mattresses in candlelight.

“There’s space down here, you could join us,” joked one man as the officers came in. A woman named Nina sighed in the darkness: “There is nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere to go. All the houses have been burnt out. Where can we go?”

In the south, Ukraine has mounted a counter-offensive, claiming to have made inroads into the biggest swath still held by Russia of the territory it seized in the invasion. There have been few reports from the frontline to confirm the situation in that area.

Ukraine claimed its forces had struck a Russian tugboat bringing soldiers, weapons and ammunition to Russian-occupied Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost.

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Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar in Marinka and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Coke bottler Coca-Cola HBC depleting stock in Russia

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Coca-Cola bottles are seen on sale in central St. Petersburg, Russia, August 6, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk/File Photo

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NEW YORK, June 16 (Reuters) – Bottler Coca-Cola HBC AG (CCH.L) and its existing customers in Russia are “in the process of depleting stock,” Coca-Cola Co (KO.N) said in a statement, after Reuters reported that Coke was for sale at a McDonald’s Corp (MCD.N)franchise in St. Petersburg. read more

Once the stock is depleted, Zug, Switzerland-based Coca-Cola HBC, an independent company, will “no longer produce or sell Coca-Cola or other brands of the Coca-Cola Company in Russia,” Atlanta-based Coca-Cola said.

Coca-Cola HBC in May said it was evaluating all options for the Russian market and said it stopped placing orders for concentrate on March 8. The company, which has 10 production sites in Russia, said it would focus on local brands. read more

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Coca-Cola in March joined an exodus of U.S. companies leaving Russia after its invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February. Coca-Cola HBC at that time said it was working in close alignment with Coke on the implementation of its decision.

Coca-Cola holds a 23% stake in the bottler.

Coca-Cola HBC bottles and sells Coke beverages exclusively in its 29 markets, which includes Greece, Italy and countries in Eastern Europe, according to its website.

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Reporting by Jessica DiNapoli in New York; Editing by Mark Porter

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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