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U.S. Secretary of State Blinken Visiting Ukraine

LONDON — When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrives in Ukraine early Thursday, he will encounter an all too familiar scene: a country struggling to defend itself from without and reconstruct itself from within.

It is little changed from the days when Mr. Blinken was a White House staffer in the Obama administration — and a warning that solutions might be years away still.

Mr. Blinken is the first senior Biden administration official to visit Kyiv, and his task when he meets with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will be to reassure him of American support against Russia’s ongoing aggression, which flared last month when Moscow built up more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Russia began withdrawing those forces in late April but still has many of them and all their equipment in place. Moscow also continues to back a pro-Russian insurgency in a war in Ukraine’s east that has killed more than 13,000 people, according to the United Nations.

seeking evidence related to Mr. Giuliani’s role in the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in April 2019.

Although that saga is unlikely to be on the official agenda or to affect U.S. policy, it is a vivid reminder of the power of anti-reform figures in the country. Ukrainian associates of Mr. Giuliani pressed Mr. Giuliani to oust the ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, because they viewed her as a threat to their business interests, American diplomats testified during the impeachment hearings in 2019.

Though Mr. Blinken is no stranger to Ukraine, having visited repeatedly during the Obama years, he will be joined by one of the government’s top experts and strongest defenders of the country, Victoria J. Nuland, who last week was confirmed as the State Department’s under secretary for political affairs, its No. 3 position.

As the department’s top official for Europe and Eurasia in the Obama administration, Ms. Nuland became a loathed figure in the Kremlin over her ardent support for Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. Russian officials bitterly recall how Ms. Nuland passed out food to protesters in Kyiv before they toppled Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Ms. Nuland’s visit with Mr. Blinken comes a few weeks before President Biden is likely to meet with Mr. Putin during a trip to Europe. For now, Mr. Taylor said, that meeting in June serves as “a hostage” that may be preventing the Russian leader from sending troops across Ukraine’s border, though analysts remain divided about Mr. Putin’s motives in ordering the buildup. Some believe he may be simply trying to intimidate Mr. Zelensky and put Mr. Biden off balance.

Combat has been taking place within Ukraine for seven years, as government forces battle separatists armed and funded by the Kremlin, and a European-led peace process is deadlocked.

Mr. Biden himself has had extensive experience in Ukraine, having led the Obama administration’s actions there as vice president. On Tuesday, he said his “hope and expectation” was that he will meet with Mr. Putin during his trip to Europe, a meeting at which Ukraine is sure to be a central topic of discussion.

With an eye on Russia’s threats and meddling, Ukrainian officials have said they are eager for more security aid from the Biden administration, but it is far from clear whether that will be forthcoming.

Asked last week whether Mr. Blinken might come bearing such offers, Philip T. Reeker, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, pointed to $408 million in existing U.S. support, and said only, “I’m sure that will come up in our conversation.” Strong support exists in Congress for increasing that funding, Mr. Taylor noted.

During his visit, Mr. Blinken is expected to try to assess how much confidence to place in Mr. Zelensky, a former comedic actor elected in April 2019 with no political experience.

Just last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky donned a helmet and flak jacket to visit his soldiers in trenches at the front, showing defiance to the Russian military buildup. Praise and warm words of support flowed in from Ukraine’s Western allies.

In a statement, the State Department said Mr. Blinken would “reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But he will also encourage continued progress in Ukraine’s institutional reform agenda, particularly anti-corruption action, with is key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity and Euro-Atlantic future.”

In Kyiv, independent analysts have praised the tough-love policy.

“Biden is an opportunity Ukraine can use or lose,” Sergiy Sydorenko, editor of European Pravda, an online news outlet, said in an interview. “By the look of it, Biden really cares for democracy, and having a democratic Ukraine is vital for developments in the wider region, including Russia. But Biden’s support is not guaranteed.”

Anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine have been a mixed bag.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Zelensky’s political party and allies passed a law privatizing former collective farmland, a step toward unwinding corruption schemes in agriculture. He also formed an anti-corruption court, and this year, his government sanctioned oligarchs with ties to Russia.

But for Western donor nations that prop up the Ukrainian budget, a critical aspect of Mr. Zelensky’s presidency has been his relationship with an oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, whom Ukraine’s own banking regulators accuse of embezzlement. Mr. Kolomoisky denies the allegations.

In March, the Biden administration sanctioned Mr. Kolomoisky and members of his family, and the U.S. authorities have frozen or seized his commercial real estate assets, including an office tower in Cleveland.

Two years ago, a freshly installed Mr. Zelensky was put through the mangle of American politics. A hangover still lingers.

In a phone call in July 2019, while withholding military aid, President Trump asked him for the “favor” of investigating Mr. Biden, a political adversary, and members of his family. Mr. Trump accused Mr. Biden of wrongdoing when he was vice president in the Obama administration.

Untangling this situation became an early headache for Mr. Zelensky in the first months of his presidency.

With seemingly little choice and his country at war and in need of the military assistance, Mr. Zelensky leaned toward helping in the scheme to discredit Mr. Biden. But Mr. Zelensky’s plans to publicly announce the investigation in September in a CNN interview, something that would have sealed his support for Mr. Trump’s position, never came to fruition. By then, a C.I.A. whistle-blower’s warning about the scheme became public and Mr. Zelensky was spared the need to pick a side.

Mr. Zelensky insisted that he had tried to remain neutral throughout, and his aides note that he never publicly endorsed Mr. Trump’s dirt-digging effort.

They say they see no reason for Mr. Biden to hold a grudge.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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Venezuela Releases 6 U.S. Oil Executives to House Arrest

HOUSTON — The Venezuelan government released a group of American refinery executives from prison to house arrest in Caracas on Friday, in a possible sign that President Nicolás Maduro would like to improve relations with the Biden administration.

The six executives of Houston-based Citgo Petroleum, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company, have been held on corruption charges since 2017, after they were ordered to attend a budget meeting in Venezuela. When they arrived, they were arrested.

The group — known as the “Citgo 6” — was previously allowed to return to private homes from prison only to be sent back to prison.

Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who has been attempting to negotiate the release of the six — five of whom are naturalized American citizens and the other an American resident — said he viewed the transfer as a sign of progress.

negotiating pawns as the relationship between the United States and Venezuela has worsened in recent years.

When the executives were last released from prison two years ago, they were quickly returned to prison after then-President Donald J. Trump invited Juan Guaidó, a top opposition leader, to the White House.

Mr. Guaidó is formally recognized as the president of Venezuela by the United States and other Western countries, but the likelihood that he will ever take control of the government appears dim. Mr. Maduro has held on to power with a tight grip and aid from Cuba, Russia and China.

Citgo operates three major refineries, a major pipeline network and scores of gasoline stations around the United States. It is currently blocked from doing business with Venezuela under U.S. sanctions.

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After 500 Years, an Ancient Bronze Hand Is Rejoined to a Finger

In fact, the finger had been considered irreparably lost. But in 2010 Aurélia Azéma, a French Ph.D. student researching welding techniques used in making ancient large bronzes, hypothesized that the Louvre digit might belong to the Constantine at the Capitoline. The theory was confirmed eight years later when a French team of scholars and a curator from the Louvre made a resin reproduction of the finger from a 3-D model and went to the Capitoline to see if it fit.

“It was perfect,” Ms. Azéma said in an email. “Like two pieces of a puzzle.”

Mr. Parisi Presicce said that at the time, Jean-Luc Martinez, president-director of the Musée du Louvre, “immediately decided it was right” for the finger to be returned to its hand, he said.

The finger had found its way to the Louvre in 1863, where for a brief time (1913-1915) it had been cataloged as a toe. It arrived via a large group of artworks that had once belonged to Giampietro Campana, a Roman art collector and archaeologist who had amassed one of the great collections of the 19th century.

He was accused of embezzlement in 1857, and his collection was confiscated and put up for sale in 1861. Napoleon III acquired one large lot, which was exhibited at the Louvre, and another lot was acquired by Emperor Alexander II for the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The finger and the hand were brought together for the first time in 2018, for an exhibition featuring the Campana collection at the Louvre that in 2019 traveled to the Hermitage.

Finally, the Louvre finger arrived at the Capitoline this week for a “renewable loan,” the French museum said in a statement. It was affixed to the hand “though an almost invisible, noninvasive and reversible system,” Mr. Parisi Presicce said.

The newly rejoined hand is exhibited next to the other pieces that made up the original nucleus of statues donated to the public by Sixtus IV, which includes the “She-wolf,” the famed symbol of Rome.

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Lawyer for Navalny Is Arrested in Moscow

MOSCOW — The lead lawyer defending the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in an extremism case that could outlaw Mr. Navalny’s opposition movement was arrested on Friday, the latest instance of a remarkable escalation by the Kremlin in its long-running campaign to stifle dissent.

The lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, was detained after Russia’s Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., raided his Moscow hotel room at 6:40 a.m., his colleagues said. He stood accused of disclosing details of a law-enforcement investigation unconnected to Mr. Navalny and faced three months of prison time. Mr. Pavlov’s colleagues said agents also searched their group’s St. Petersburg offices and broke down the apartment door of their technology manager.

Mr. Pavlov, one of Russia’s best-known human rights lawyers, has frequently represented high-profile defendants in cases involving the F.S.B., a successor to the K.G.B. that wields enormous influence in Russia. His arrest shook Russia’s activist community because lawyers have, for the most part, been able to continue to operate even as the authorities have intensified their crackdown on the opposition.

“Ivan’s arrest is connected to his professional activity,” a group of lawyers said in an open letter Friday. “We believe that these actions by law enforcement are aimed exclusively at scaring Ivan and his colleagues in order to force them to reject an active position in defending their clients.”

accused of spying for NATO last year.

Team 29 said that Mr. Pavlov was being investigated for allegedly disclosing classified details of the Safronov case to the news media.

But the raids came just four days after Mr. Pavlov took up the defense of Mr. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure. On Monday, Team 29 announced it would be representing Mr. Navalny’s organizations in a lawsuit filed in April by Moscow prosecutors to have the organizations outlawed as extremist groups.

said they were shutting down their nationwide network of 40 regional offices.

The crackdown on dissent has accompanied rising tensions between Russia and the West, leaving regular Russians increasingly isolated from the outside world. In response to the April 15 American sanctions against Russia over hacking and other “harmful foreign activities,” Russia countered by, among other things, prohibiting the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from employing people who are not American citizens.

The U.S. Embassy said on Friday that the move had forced it to lay off three quarters of its consular staff. As a result, the embassy said, it would stop processing nearly all nonimmigrant visa requests in Russia, such as for tourism or work travel.

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

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Overdue VHS Tape of ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ Prompts Arrest Warrant

They once dotted shopping plazas in America with ubiquity, beckoning binge watchers with shelves of VHS cassettes, microwave popcorn and boxes of candy — and a reminder to “Be Kind, Rewind.”

Video rental stores, pushed closer to the brink of extinction by streaming services like Netflix and changing technology, may be a thing of the past but an overdue rental became an issue of the present for a Texas woman.

The woman, who was identified in court records as Caron Scarborough Davis, recently learned that there was a 21-year-old outstanding warrant for her arrest in Oklahoma.

reported on Thursday.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” she said.

Ms. Davis said motor vehicle officials referred her to the district attorney’s office for Cleveland County, Okla., where a woman explained the charge against her.

last Blockbuster video store, in Bend, Ore., said in an interview on Sunday that bringing criminal charges for an unreturned movie seemed overly punitive.

“We’ve definitely not sent out a warrant for anybody for that,” she said. “That’s a little a bit crazy to me.”

Blockbuster assesses daily late fees of 49 to 99 cents for overdue videos up to 10 days. After that, the store charges customers up to $19.99 to replace one of its DVDs or Blu-ray discs, Ms. Harding said.

In some cases, the store, which does not rent VHS cassettes, will refer past-due accounts for collection, she said.

“We would never charge someone $100 for a copy of ‘Scooby-Doo’ that they never returned,” she said.

It was not immediately clear who owned the now-shuttered video store where Ms. Davis rented the tape or whether she owed any late fees. She told KOKH Fox 25 that she had no recollection of renting the video, saying that she lived with a man at the time who had two young daughters.

“I’m thinking he went and got it and didn’t take it back or something,” she said. “I have never watched that show in my entire life — just not my cup of tea.”

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Tracii Hutsona: ‘Serial Con Artist’

The couches were nice, and the Orange County home where Ms. Ellman picked them up was even nicer.

Ms. Ellman ended up really liking Ms. Hutsona, who volunteered to deliver the couches to her home later that evening. But Ms. Hutsona had a tale of woe: Her family’s new Malibu apartment had mold! Ms. Ellman, who had planned on renting out her Palm Springs home to vacationers, took pity.

“I learned that they were having to move out of this house and that they didn’t have a next step,” Ms. Ellman said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty devastating. Whatever, whatever.’ I mean, that’s where, stupid me, I offered to let her stay in my place free of charge.”

But Ms. Ellman didn’t know that Ms. Hutsona had recently been evicted from the fancy Coto de Cazo home for trying to pay her $6,500 monthly rent with a bad check and by stopping payment on a second.

The women became close. Ms. Ellman allowed Ms. Hutsona’s family to crash on her couch when she and her husband had meetings in Los Angeles. When Ms. Hutsona, Mr. Vician and their two children were invited to tape an episode of the game show “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!” Ms. Ellman accompanied them as their guest and cheered them on.

Then, things — like Gucci purses — started going missing.

“She just knows how to navigate a person. She acts very reliable, and she becomes very close to you as though she’s your friend,” Ms. Ellman said. “She almost knows when you’re in a position to help, and she works it to the end. But she makes it where you offer it up. She works the angle that she’s in a bind, and she doesn’t know what to do.”

Fortunately, Ms. Ellman had filed a change-of-address form when she moved to Los Angeles. So the bill for a new credit card in her name, while it was addressed to the Palm Springs location, came directly to her. There were charges for a storage unit, car repairs and an Audi rental from Hertz.

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Navalny’s Path From Russian Gadfly to Heroic Symbol

MOSCOW — While waiting out the coronavirus lockdown in his two-bedroom apartment last spring, the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny seemed uncharacteristically idle, with his most potent weapon against the Kremlin — street protests — off the table.

And yet, Mr. Navalny felt that President Vladimir V. Putin’s grip on power might be slipping. Operating from his living room, rather than the slick Moscow studio he had used before, he cranked out videos haranguing Mr. Putin for failing to manage the coronavirus crisis and leaving Russians struggling as the economy suffered. Confirming his hunch that the pandemic could become a political catalyst, the audience for Mr. Navalny’s YouTube videos tripled, to 10 million viewers per month.

“Putin can’t handle all this madness, and you can see that he is totally out of his depth,” Mr. Navalny said in an interview by Zoom in May. “We are continuing to hit them where it hurts.”

Methodical and uncompromising, Mr. Navalny, 44, has spent almost half his life trying to unseat Mr. Putin. Often deemed rude, brusque and power hungry, even by other Kremlin critics, he persisted while other opposition activists retreated, emigrated, switched sides, went to prison or were killed. It increasingly became a deeply personal fight, with the stakes — for Mr. Navalny and his family, as well as for Mr. Putin and all of Russia — rising year by year.

sentenced this month to more than two years in prison for violating parole on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Europe’s top human rights court ruled was politically motivated.

Even in custody, though, he has seized the moment. Two days after his arrest at a Moscow airport last month, his team released a report about a purported secret palace built for Mr. Putin that was viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. Two weeks later, from his glassed-in prisoner’s box at Moscow City Court, Mr. Navalny predicted that Russians would eventually rise up and prevail against Mr. Putin, a “thieving little man,” because “you can’t lock up the whole country.”

An independent poll found that while 80 percent of Russians had heard of the protests that swept the country last month calling for his release only 22 percent approved of them.

“Putin and his regime spend millions of man hours on strengthening their power,” Mr. Navalny wrote last year, criticizing some of his fellow opposition figures as insufficiently hard-working. “We will only take them down if we spend tens of millions of man hours.”

Mr. Navalny has rarely shirked from confrontation or let himself be scared off course by the Kremlin’s security apparatus. In recent years, a pro-Putin activist threw an emerald green chemical in his face, nearly costing him the sight of one eye; his younger brother served three and a half years in prison in a case widely seen as a punishment against Mr. Navalny; and he nearly died in last year’s poisoning, spending weeks in a coma.

All the while he was building up a social media audience in the millions and a nationwide network of regional offices — an unparalleled achievement in a country dominated by security services beholden to Mr. Putin.

drawing 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 election for mayor of Moscow — Mr. Navalny grew more angry at Mr. Putin, people close to him say, and even more determined to bring him down.

covered Mr. Navalny extensively. “He was just radiating that anger.”

Mr. Navalny, the son of a Red Army officer, grew up in the 1980s in closed military towns outside Moscow, a world away from the intellectual and political ferment that gripped the capital in the last years of the Soviet Union. His father despised Soviet rule, and his mother, an accountant, became an early devotee of the liberal Yabloko party in the 1990s despite its perpetually dismal electoral results.

As a boy, he hated being told what to do. When he got in trouble with his teacher, his mother, Lyudmila I. Navalnaya, once recalled, he refused to go to school the next day, saying: “I don’t want anyone to force me to learn.”

He studied law and finance, worked as a real estate lawyer, and joined Yabloko in 2000, the year Mr. Putin was first elected president. He looked for ways to organize grass-roots opposition to the Kremlin at a time when the established opposition parties were coming to play only a theatrical role in Mr. Putin’s tightly choreographed political system known as managed democracy.

bought stock in state-owned companies, using his standing as a shareholder to force disclosures, and railed against Putin-supporting business tycoons on a blog that was widely read in Moscow’s financial circles.

a video report about the hidden wealth of Dmitri A. Medvedev, the prime minister at the time. Overruling his aides’ skepticism over whether those who watched the video would take to the streets, he called for protests, and thousands rallied in more than 100 cities.

The Kremlin tried its best to muzzle Mr. Navalny through constant harassment, but it never entirely squelched him — both to avoid making a martyr of him and to provide a way for society’s discontents to blow off some steam. That approach already seems to have been discarded in favor of greater repression; state television, which long mostly ignored Mr. Navalny, now dedicates lengthy reports to painting him as an agent of the West.

Besides the 2014 conviction for embezzlement, Mr. Navalny endured many smaller humiliations, Ms. Albats, the radio host, recalls: among them ubiquitous, privacy-destroying surveillance and the gratuitous cruelty of confiscating his daughter’s beloved iPad. She said that the support, endurance and conviction of his wife, Yulia B. Navalnaya, kept him going. And his fight against Mr. Putin became ever more personal.

“He had this choice: stay in politics, and keep creating trouble for his family, his brother’s family, his parents,” Ms. Albats said. “Of course, it leads to the hardening of your heart.”

The authorities barred him from running in the 2018 presidential election, but he still crisscrossed the country, opening more than 80 regional offices and agitating for a boycott of an election he saw as rigged to give Mr. Putin a fourth term. He organized nationwide protests and poll-watching efforts, and built up an investigative team that pored through public records and social media to document the questionable dealings of the Russian elite.

mass protests gripped neighboring Belarus as well as Russia’s Far East, pointing to growing risks for Mr. Putin.

Then, in August, Mr. Navalny collapsed on a flight over Siberia, screaming in pain. Western laboratories later determined that he had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent — Mr. Putin denies any involvement — and survived thanks to the pilots who made an emergency landing and the medical workers who first treated him in the city of Omsk.

He was airlifted to Germany for treatment. Soon after coming out of a coma, he re-engaged with the world’s political debates. He slammed Twitter’s decision to silence then-President Trump’s account as an “unacceptable act of censorship.”

And in recent weeks, Mr. Navalny has done his best to exude optimism.

“Everything will be OK,” Ms. Albats said he wrote to her from jail. “And even if it won’t be, we will console ourselves with the knowledge that we were honest people.”

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