being repeatedly told that the American election process is deeply corrupted.

In fact, Mr. Mastriano’s candidacy has from its inception been propelled by his role in disputing the 2020 presidential election lost by Mr. Trump.

county by county, but election experts say they do not reflect factors as benign as changes in addresses.

“They’re in search of solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Kyle Miller, a Navy veteran and state representative for Protect Democracy, a national advocacy organization, said in an interview in Harrisburg. “They are basing this on faulty data and internet rumors.”

Some Republican lawmakers have leaned on false claims to call for changes to rules about mail-in ballots and other measures intended to make it easier for people to vote. Several counties have already reversed some of the decisions, including the number and location of drop boxes for ballots.

Mr. Miller, among others, warned that the flurry of false claims about balloting could be a trial run for challenging the results of the presidential election in 2024, in which Pennsylvania could again be a crucial swing state.

In Chester County, a largely white region that borders Delaware and Maryland that is roughly split between Republicans and Democrats, the effort to sow confusion came the old-fashioned way: in the mail.

Letters dated Sept. 12 began arriving in mailboxes across the county, warning people that their votes in the 2020 presidential election might not have counted. “Because you have a track record of consistently voting, we find it unusual that your record indicates that you did not vote,” the letter, which was unsigned, said.

The sender called itself “Data Insights,” based in the county seat of West Chester, though no known record of such a company exists, according to county officials. The letters did include copies of the recipients’ voting records. The letters urged recipients to write to the county commissioners or attend the commission’s meetings in the county seat of West Chester, in September and October. Dozens of recipients did.

The county administrator, Robert J. Kagel, tried to assure them that their votes were actually counted. He urged anyone concerned to contact the county’s voter services department.

Even so, at county meetings in September and October, speaker after speaker lined up to question the letter and the ballot process generally — and to air an array of grievances and conspiracy theories.

They included the discredited claims of the film “2000 Mules” that operatives have been stuffing boxes for mail-in ballots. One attendee warned that votes were being tabulated by the Communist Party of China or the World Economic Forum.

“I don’t know where my vote is,” another resident, Barbara Ellis of Berwyn, told the commissioners in October. “I don’t know if it was manipulated in the machines, in another country.”

As of Oct. 20, 59 people in Chester County had contacted officials with concerns raised in the letter, but in each case, it was determined that the voters’ ballots had been cast and counted, said Rebecca Brain, a county spokesman.

Who exactly sent the letters remains a mystery, which only fuels more conspiracy theories.

“It seems very official,” Charlotte Valyo, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in the county, said of the letter. She described it as part of “an ongoing, constant campaign to undermine the confidence in our voting system.” The county’s Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

Disinformation may not be the only cause of the deepening partisan chasm in the state — or the nation — but it has undoubtedly worsened it. The danger, Ms. Valyo warned, was discouraging voting by sowing distrust in the ability of election officials to tally the votes.

“People might think, ‘Why bother, if they’re that messed up?’”

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Using Adoptions, Russia Turns Ukrainian Children Into Spoils of War

“I did not recognize those kids with whom we traveled in April on the train to their new life,” Ksenia Mishonova, the children’s rights commissioner for the Moscow region, said in a statement. “Now they are our little fellow citizens!”

Some children were indeed orphaned or abandoned in Ukraine and prefer their lives in Russia. The Times spoke to one teenager from Mariupol who said he had no family back home. He said his foster family loved him like he was their own.

Others, like Anya, long to return.

She participated in a weekly class called Conversations About Important Things. The half-hour lesson, introduced recently by Mr. Putin, teaches children to be proud of Russia.

Sometimes, Anya said, she cries, wondering if something horrible has happened to her family.

After more than a month of reporting, Times reporters reached Anya’s mother, Oksana, in Ukraine. With no job, no internet access, a small disability pension and a war going on, she said she had no idea how to find her daughter.

“I’m looking everywhere, but I can’t find her,” she said. “She is looking for me.”

She said she did not know that Anya had been taken to Russia.

Reporters told Anya and Oksana how to contact each other. The prospect of Anya returning home, though, is unclear. Ukrainian officials have been tight-lipped about how they have gotten dozens of children back from Russia.

“Is this really her number?” Anya asked.

Anastasia Kuznietsova, Alina Lobzina and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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How Disinformation Splintered and Became More Intractable

On the morning of July 8, former President Donald J. Trump took to Truth Social, a social media platform he founded with people close to him, to claim that he had in fact won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Barely 8,000 people shared that missive on Truth Social, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of responses his posts on Facebook and Twitter had regularly generated before those services suspended his megaphones after the deadly riot on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.

And yet Mr. Trump’s baseless claim pulsed through the public consciousness anyway. It jumped from his app to other social media platforms — not to mention podcasts, talk radio or television.

Within 48 hours of Mr. Trump’s post, more than one million people saw his claim on at least dozen other media. It appeared on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

gone mainstream among Republican Party members, driving state and county officials to impose new restrictions on casting ballots, often based on mere conspiracy theories percolating in right-wing media.

Voters must now sift through not only an ever-growing torrent of lies and falsehoods about candidates and their policies, but also information on when and where to vote. Officials appointed or elected in the name of fighting voter fraud have put themselves in the position to refuse to certify outcomes that are not to their liking.

a primary battleground in today’s fight against disinformation. A report last month by NewsGuard, an organization that tracks the problem online, showed that nearly 20 percent of videos presented as search results on TikTok contained false or misleading information on topics such as school shootings and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

continued to amplify “election denialism” in ways that undermined trust in the democratic system.

Another challenge is the proliferation of alternative platforms for those falsehoods and even more extreme views.

new survey by the Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of prominent accounts on those seven platforms had previously been banished from others like Twitter and Facebook.

F.B.I. raid on Mar-a-Lago thrust his latest pronouncements into the eye of the political storm once again.

study of Truth Social by Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media monitoring group, examined how the platform had become a home for some of the most fringe conspiracy theories. Mr. Trump, who began posting on the platform in April, has increasingly amplified content from QAnon, the online conspiracy theory.

He has shared posts from QAnon accounts more than 130 times. QAnon believers promote a vast and complex conspiracy that centers on Mr. Trump as a leader battling a cabal of Democratic Party pedophiles. Echoes of such views reverberated through Republican election campaigns across the country during this year’s primaries.

Ms. Jankowicz, the disinformation expert, said the nation’s social and political divisions had churned the waves of disinformation.

The controversies over how best to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic deepened distrust of government and medical experts, especially among conservatives. Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election led to, but did not end with, the Capitol Hill violence.

“They should have brought us together,” Ms. Jankowicz said, referring to the pandemic and the riots. “I thought perhaps they could be kind of this convening power, but they were not.”

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In Global Slowdown, China Holds Sway Over Countries’ Fates

BEIJING — When Suriname couldn’t make its debt payments, a Chinese state bank seized the money from one of the South American country’s accounts.

As Pakistan has struggled to cope with a devastating flood that has inundated a third of the country, its loan repayments to China have been rising fast.

When Kenyans and Angolans went to the polls in presidential elections in August, the countries’ Chinese loans, and how to repay them, were a hot-button political issue.

Across much of the developing world, China finds itself in an uncomfortable position, a geopolitical giant that now holds significant sway over the financial futures of many nations but is also owed huge sums of money that may never be repaid in full.

the lender of choice for many nations over the past decade, doling out funds for governments to build bullet trains, hydroelectric dams, airports and superhighways. As inflation has climbed and economies have weakened, China has the power to cut them off, lend more or, in its most accommodating moments, forgive small portions of their debts.

The economic distress in poor countries is palpable, given the lingering effects of the pandemic, coupled with high food and energy prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many borrowed heavily from China. In Pakistan, overall public debt has more than doubled over the past decade, with loans from China growing fastest; in Kenya, public debt is up ninefold and in Suriname tenfold.

two hydroelectric dams in southern Patagonia. Bradley Parks, the executive director of AidData, a research institute at William and Mary, a university in Williamsburg, Va., estimated that Argentina’s twice-a-year interest payment was $87 million in January and $137 million in July.

Argentina will owe a payment of over $170 million on the loan in January if interest rates keep rising at the same pace, he calculated. Argentina’s finance ministry did not respond to emails and text messages about the loan.

According to the I.M.F., three-fifths of the world’s developing countries are now having considerable trouble repaying loans or have already fallen behind on their debts. More than half the world’s poor countries owe more to China than to all Western governments combined.

For now, Chinese officials in poor countries face unpleasant jobs as debt collectors.

“You have a lot more influence when you’re providing the loan,” said Brad Setser, an international payments specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, “than when you’re begging for repayment.”

Abdi Latif Dahir in Nairobi, Emily Schmall in New Delhi, Skandha Gunasekara in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Salman Masood in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed reporting. Li You and Ana Lankes contributed research.

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An Israel-Lebanon Border Deal Could Increase Natural Gas Supplies

Israel and Lebanon have been at war since 1948, but the countries are close to an agreement that could increase production of natural gas, helping energy-starved Europe.

Officials from the two countries have said they are close to resolving long-running disputes over their maritime borders, which would allow energy companies to extract more fossil fuels from offshore fields in the Mediterranean Sea.

The increased production won’t make up for the gas that Europe is no longer getting from Russia. But energy experts say an Israel-Lebanon agreement should give a vital push to efforts to produce more gas in that part of the world. Over the last four years, energy production in the eastern Mediterranean has been growing as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Cyprus have worked together to take advantage of oil and gas buried under the sea.

“This is a very important step for the region to come into its own,” said Charif Souki, the Lebanese-American executive chairman of Tellurian, a liquefied natural gas company based in Houston. “Players are finally realizing that it’s better to cooperate than to continuously fight.”

The Israel-Lebanon negotiations will most directly affect the Karish field, which is set to produce gas for Israel’s domestic use. That fuel is expected to displace gas produced from other fields, which can then be exported. The new field is also expected to produce a small amount of oil.

Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil and gas company, and several smaller businesses are already producing gas from two larger fields off Israel’s coast. That fuel has increasingly replaced coal in the country’s power plants and factories. Israel now has so much gas that it has become a net exporter of energy, sending fuel to neighbors like Jordan and Egypt. Some of that gas has also found its way to Europe and other parts of the world from L.N.G. export terminals in Egypt.

The U.S. government, across several administrations, has encouraged the growth of the gas trade in the region by helping to negotiate deals between countries that have long had tense relations. The Ukraine crisis has accelerated efforts to explore and produce natural gas because of the soaring cost of the fuel in Europe, where countries are desperate to end their dependence on Russian gas.

Chevron and its Israeli partners are discussing the possibility of building a floating liquefied natural gas platform in the Leviathan gas field, Israel’s largest. The companies are expected to make a decision on the project in a few months.

But getting the gas out of the region will not be easy. Floating export terminals are vulnerable to terrorist attack. And, even if they could be adequately secured, the terminals will not be able to process as much gas as the larger coastal facilities used in major gas producers like the United States, Qatar and Australia. Building terminals on land can take several years, if not often longer, because of opposition from environmental and other groups.

“Energy infrastructure offshore is very volatile and vulnerable,” said Gal Luft, a former Israeli military officer who is the co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. “You have to manage risk.”

Theoretically, transporting gas by pipelines would be easier than liquefying natural gas for export before converting it back into gas at its destination. But building long-distance pipelines is expensive and difficult. A long-running conflict between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece, for example, has made constructing a pipeline from Israel to southern Europe incredibly challenging, if not impossible.

Even an Israel-Lebanon border agreement faces risks. Hezbollah has threatened to attack the Karish field, and it sent unarmed drones over it in July; Israeli officials said they had shot down the ‌aircraft.

Still, Israeli and Lebanese officials have said in recent days that they are pressing on with the negotiations, with officials from the Biden administration acting as a go-between, and are close to a deal. The talks gathered momentum during the United Nations General Assembly last week.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati of Lebanon said on Thursday at the United Nations that he was confident about reaching an agreement with Israel. “Lebanon is well aware of the importance of the promising energy market in the eastern Mediterranean for the prosperity of all countries in the region,” he said, “but also to meet the needs of importing nations.”

U.S. and other Western oil companies have long shied away from Israel, in part because they do not want to alienate Arab countries. But, as relations between Israel and countries like Egypt, Jordan and, more recently, the United Arab Emirates have improved more companies have expressed interest in the eastern Mediterranean.

An agreement between Israel and Lebanon could accelerate that trend.

“I think it will appease many minds,” said Leslie Palti-Guzman, chief executive of Gas Vista, a consulting firm. “Companies that have been reluctant to invest could be more incentivized to develop additional projects.”

Gas fields in the Mediterranean are one of several new suppliers that Europe will need as it seeks a long-term replacement for Russian gas. Other suppliers include energy companies operating in the United States, Qatar, Africa, the Caspian Sea and the North Sea.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Paddy Blewer, spokesman for Energean, a London-based exploration company that hopes to begin producing gas in the Karish field. “The East Mediterranean is one of a series of marginal gains that Europe has to look at.”

Energean plans to begin production in the next few weeks, and has said it expects to produce up to 8 billion cubic meters of gas a year by 2025. If it is successful, the company could significantly add to Israel’s output. The country will produce roughly 22 billion cubic meters this year. Once an importer of almost all of its energy, Israel increased gas production by 22 percent in the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2021. It exported roughly 40 percent of its gas, earning the government royalties of $250 million.

The agreement between Israel and Lebanon will also open the way to drilling in Lebanese waters by a consortium led by Eni of Italy and TotalEnergies of France. Lebanese officials view natural gas as a critical financial tool in its attempts to revive the country’s depressed economy. The government has wanted to drill offshore since at least 2014, but disputes with Israel over the border have delayed exploration.

“It’s not for sure Lebanon will find gas,” said Chakib Khelil, a former president of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “But, if they do, Lebanon will get a big boost.”

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Europe Looks at Italy’s Giorgia Meloni With Caution and Trepidation

BRUSSELS — The victory in Italian elections of the far-right and Euroskeptic leader Giorgia Meloni, who once wanted to ditch the euro currency, sent a tremor on Monday through a European establishment worried about a new right-wing shift in Europe.

European Union leaders are now watching her coalition’s comfortable victory in Italy, one of its founding members, with caution and some trepidation, despite reassurances from Ms. Meloni, who would be the first far-right nationalist to govern Italy since Mussolini, that she has moderated her views.

But it is hard for them to escape a degree of dread. Even given the bloc’s successes in recent years to agree on a groundbreaking pandemic recovery fund and to confront Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the appeal of nationalists and populists remains strong — and is spreading, a potential threat to European ideals and cohesion.

said in a Twitter message: “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges.”

Europe’s concerns are less about policy toward Ukraine. Ms. Meloni has said she supports NATO and Ukraine and has no great warmth for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, as her junior coalition partners, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, have evinced.

Still, Mr. Berlusconi said last week that Mr. Putin “was pushed by the Russian population, by his party, by his ministers to invent this special operation.” The plan, he said, was for Russian troops to enter “in a week to replace Zelensky’s government with a government of decent people.”

Italian popular opinion is traditionally sympathetic toward Moscow, with about a third of seats in the new Parliament going to parties with an ambiguous stance on Russia, sanctions, and military aid to Ukraine. As the war proceeds, with all its domestic economic costs, Ms. Meloni may take a less firm view than Mr. Draghi has.

Mr. Kupchan expects “the balance of power in Europe will tilt more toward diplomacy and a bit less toward continuing the fight.” That is a view more popular with the populist right than with parties in the mainstream, but it has prominent adherents in Germany and France, too.

“These elections are another sign that all is not well with mainstream parties,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and spell a complicated period for the European Union.

Even the victory a year ago of Olaf Scholz in Germany, a man of the center left, was ensured by the collapse of the center-right Christian Democrats, who had their worst showing in their history, while in April, France’s long-dominant center-right Republicans fell to under 5 percent of the vote.

“People in Brussels are extremely anxious about Meloni becoming an E.U. prime minister,” Mr. Leonard said. “They’ve seen how disruptive Orban can be from a small country with no systemic role in the E.U. Meloni says she won’t immediately upend the consensus on Ukraine, but she could be a force for a much more virulent form of Euroskepticism in council meetings.”

One or two troublemakers can do a lot of a damage to E.U. decision-making, he said, “but if it’s five or six,” it becomes very hard to obtain coherence or consensus.

When the leftist, populist Five Star Movement led Italy from 2018 to early 2021, before Mr. Draghi, it created major fights inside Brussels on immigration and asylum issues. Ms. Meloni is expected to concentrate on topics like immigration, identity issues (she despises what she calls “woke ideology”), and future E.U. rules covering debt and fiscal discipline, to replace the outdated growth and stability pact.

But analysts think she will pick her fights carefully, given Italy’s debt mountain — over 150 percent of gross domestic product — and the large sums that Brussels has promised Rome as part of the Covid recovery fund. For this year, the amount is 19 billion euros, or about $18.4 billion, nearly 1 percent of Italy’s G.D.P., said Mujtaba Rahman, Europe director for the Eurasia Group, with a total over the next few years of some 10.5 percent of G.D.P.

“Draghi has already implemented tough reforms to satisfy Brussels, so there is no reason for her to come in and mess it up and agitate the market,” Mr. Rahman said. But for the future, there are worries that she will push for an expansionist budget, looser fiscal rules and thereby make the more frugal countries of northern Europe less willing to compromise.

For Mr. Rahman, the bigger risk for Europe is the loss of influence Italy exercised under Mr. Draghi. He and President Emmanuel Macron of France, “were beginning to create an alternative axis to compete with the vacuum of leadership now in Germany, and all that will be lost,” Mr. Rahman said. Italy will go from a country that leads to one that Europe watches anxiously, he said.

There was a sign of that anxiety just before the election, when Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, warned that Brussels had “the tools” to deal with Italy if things went in a “difficult direction.” It was seen as a hint that the European Commission could cut funds to Italy if it were deemed to be violating the bloc’s democratic standards.

Mr. Salvini, seeing an opportunity, immediately responded: “What is this, a threat? This is shameful arrogance,” and asked Ms. von der Leyen to “respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people” and resist “institutional bullying.”

Instead, Mr. Stefanini, the former diplomat, urged Brussels to be patient and to engage with Ms. Meloni. “The new government should be judged on facts, on what it does when in power,” he said. “The real risk is that by exaggerated overreactions the E.U. makes legitimate concerns self-fulfilling prophecies.

“If she’s made to feel rejected, she’ll be pushed into a corner — where she’ll find Orban and other soulmates waiting for her, and she’ll team up with them,” he continued. “But if she’s greeted as a legitimate leader, democratically elected, it will be possible for the E.U. to do business with her.”

Luuk van Middelaar, a historian of the bloc, also urges caution. European leaders know two things about Italian prime ministers, he said. First, “they are not very powerful at home, and two, they tend not to last very long” — since World War II, an average of about 18 months.

“So they will wait and see and not be blown away,” Mr. van Middelaar said. If she lasts longer, however, she could energize other far-right Euroskeptics in other big countries like France, he said, “and that would make a real difference.”

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Ukraine’s Donbas, Where Putin Sowed the Seeds of War

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — On a clear spring morning eight years ago, Oleksandr Khainus stepped outside his house to go to work at the town factory when he spotted new graffiti scrawled across his fence. “Glory to Russia,” vandals had written in angry black spray paint. “Putin,” another message said.

Mr. Khainus was perplexed. It was true that Chasiv Yar, the Rust Belt-like town where he has spent his entire life in a region called the Donbas, had long contained many conflicting opinions on its identity. Geographically, the Donbas was part of Ukraine, no question, but it was so close to Russia and so tied to it historically that many maintained that their true home really lay eastward.

“It was the type of stuff you’d argue about over the dinner table,” he said. “But nothing that anyone would get violent over.”

protests exploded. Armed separatists seized chunks of the Donbas right under the authorities’ noses. Two so-called People’s Republics were declared. Russian troops stormed in.

the most far-reaching war in generations. It was the Donbas that became Mr. Putin’s pretext for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. And now it is heating up again.

masterful offensive in the Kharkiv region, in Ukraine’s northeast, where town after town fell without a shot. Now they are heading south. Columns of dark green military trucks and American-made rocket launchers are thundering down the long, straight highways into the Donbas. But they will have a much harder fight on their hands.

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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How a Spreader of Voter Fraud Conspiracy Theories Became a Star

In 2011, Catherine Engelbrecht appeared at a Tea Party Patriots convention in Phoenix to deliver a dire warning.

While volunteering at her local polls in the Houston area two years earlier, she claimed, she witnessed voter fraud so rampant that it made her heart stop. People cast ballots without proof of registration or eligibility, she said. Corrupt election judges marked votes for their preferred candidates on the ballots of unwitting citizens, she added.

Local authorities found no evidence of the election tampering she described, but Ms. Engelbrecht was undeterred. “Once you see something like that, you can’t forget it,” the suburban Texas mom turned election-fraud warrior told the audience of 2,000. “You certainly can’t abide by it.”

planting seeds of doubt over the electoral process, becoming one of the earliest and most enthusiastic spreaders of ballot conspiracy theories.

fueled by Mr. Trump, has seized the moment. She has become a sought-after speaker at Republican organizations, regularly appears on right-wing media and was the star of the recent film “2,000 Mules,” which claimed mass voter fraud in the 2020 election and has been debunked.

She has also been active in the far-right’s battle for November’s midterm elections, rallying election officials, law enforcement and lawmakers to tighten voter restrictions and investigate the 2020 results.

said in an interview last month with a conservative show, GraceTimeTV, which was posted on the video-sharing site Rumble. “There have been no substantive improvements to change anything that happened in 2020 to prevent it from happening in 2022.”

set up stakeouts to prevent illegal stuffing of ballot boxes. Officials overseeing elections are ramping up security at polling places.

Voting rights groups said they were increasingly concerned by Ms. Engelbrecht.

She has “taken the power of rhetoric to a new place,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of voting rights at the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s having a real impact on the way lawmakers and states are governing elections and on the concerns we have on what may happen in the upcoming elections.”

Some of Ms. Engelbrecht’s former allies have cut ties with her. Rick Wilson, a Republican operative and Trump critic, ran public relations for Ms. Engelbrecht in 2014 but quit after a few months. He said she had declined to turn over data to back her voting fraud claims.

“She never had the juice in terms of evidence,” Mr. Wilson said. “But now that doesn’t matter. She’s having her uplift moment.”

a video of the donor meeting obtained by The New York Times. They did not elaborate on why.

announce a partnership to scrutinize voting during the midterms.

“The most important right the American people have is to choose our own public officials,” said Mr. Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz. “Anybody trying to steal that right needs to be prosecuted and arrested.”

Steve Bannon, then chief executive of the right-wing media outlet Breitbart News, and Andrew Breitbart, the publication’s founder, spoke at her conferences.

True the Vote’s volunteers scrutinized registration rolls, watched polling stations and wrote highly speculative reports. In 2010, a volunteer in San Diego reported seeing a bus offloading people at a polling station “who did not appear to be from this country.”

Civil rights groups described the activities as voter suppression. In 2010, Ms. Engelbrecht told supporters that Houston Votes, a nonprofit that registered voters in diverse communities of Harris County, Texas, was connected to the “New Black Panthers.” She showed a video of an unrelated New Black Panther member in Philadelphia who called for the extermination of white people. Houston Votes was subsequently investigated by state officials, and law enforcement raided its office.

“It was a lie and racist to the core,” said Fred Lewis, head of Houston Votes, who sued True the Vote for defamation. He said he had dropped the suit after reaching “an understanding” that True the Vote would stop making accusations. Ms. Engelbrecht said she didn’t recall such an agreement.

in April 2021, did not respond to requests for comment. Ms. Engelbrecht has denied his claims.

In mid-2021, “2,000 Mules” was hatched after Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips met with Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative provocateur and filmmaker. They told him that they could detect cases of ballot box stuffing based on two terabytes of cellphone geolocation data that they had bought and matched with video surveillance footage of ballot drop boxes.

Salem Media Group, the conservative media conglomerate, and Mr. D’Souza agreed to create and fund a film. The “2,000 Mules” title was meant to evoke the image of cartels that pay people to carry illegal drugs into the United States.

said after seeing the film that it raised “significant questions” about the 2020 election results; 17 state legislators in Michigan also called for an investigation into election results there based on the film’s accusations.

In Arizona, the attorney general’s office asked True the Vote between April and June for data about some of the claims in “2,000 Mules.” The contentions related to Maricopa and Yuma Counties, where Ms. Engelbrecht said people had illegally submitted ballots and had used “stash houses” to store fraudulent ballots.

According to emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a True the Vote official said Mr. Phillips had turned over a hard drive with the data. The attorney general’s office said early this month that it hadn’t received it.

Last month, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips hosted an invitation-only gathering of about 150 supporters in Queen Creek, Ariz., which was streamed online. For weeks beforehand, they promised to reveal the addresses of ballot “stash houses” and footage of voter fraud.

Ms. Engelbrecht did not divulge the data at the event. Instead, she implored the audience to look to the midterm elections, which she warned were the next great threat to voter integrity.

“The past is prologue,” she said.

Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting.

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Student Loan Forgiveness Is Complicated, Because This Is America

If we want higher education to cost less, we should make it cheaper when people enroll.

But that’s not how we do things in the United States, where the first rule of personal finance is that it should never be simple.

Instead, we befuddle people with a menu of a half-dozen retirement accounts. We fetishize the tax code and its deductions and credits and refunds. We name gold, silver and bronze health insurance plans after precious metals but award no medals for clearing the enrollment hurdles.

And so it goes with President Biden’s executive action around student loan debt cancellation. The potential $20,000 in relief per person gets the headlines. But the sleeper element here is a new income-driven debt repayment plan that would help many people pay much less of their student loan debt over time, if they’re not big earners.

choose among H.M.O., P.P.O., P.F.F.S., S.N.P., H.M.O.-P.O.S. and M.S.A. plans. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website has an acronym glossary with 4,420 entries, because personal finance is its own language. You learn as you go, or not at all.

Pamela Herd is a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, with an expertise in these “administrative burdens.”

With certain social welfare benefits, Professor Herd explained in an interview this week, the original program designers believed that obstacles were appropriate. Anyone desperate enough should find a way to muddle through and prove their poverty, or so the logic went.

More recently, administrative burdens have resulted from the conviction that private sector actors — who are often seeking profits — would be the most efficient intermediaries between people and federal programs that involved money.

You see it in those Medicare Advantage Plans, and it was a feature of federal P.P.P. loans during the early stages of the pandemic. Rather than give employers money up front to keep people on the payroll, there were forgivable loans that required frazzled small business owners to beg a banker to bum rush a balky government website on their behalf.

And so it goes with the federal student loan system.

Both the income-driven repayment plans that have existed for years and a special debt cancellation program for public servants are already poster children for administrative burdens. Tracking your progress is a part-time job, complete with self-help Facebook groups of frustrated debtors and companies to help people manage the process.

And wouldn’t you know it? There are several third parties to which the federal government has outsourced the work of collecting student loan payments and enforcing the rules.

would go to 5 percent from 10 percent of discretionary income; the amount of a person’s income that doesn’t meet the definition of discretionary would rise; and there would be a new, more generous way of calculating how balances shrink or grow over time. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that something this complex would roll out smoothly or quickly.

And it would not be cheap. Estimates from the Penn Wharton Budget Model put the 10-year cost of the new repayment plan at anywhere from $70.3 billion to over $450 billion, depending on the implementation details and how students and schools change their borrowing and tuition-setting behavior. Again, it’s complicated.

By comparison, Mr. Biden had proposed spending $45.5 billion over five years to make up to six semesters of community college free nationwide. That would have paid for most of the cost, with states contributing the rest. No debt for tuition, no hoops to jump through.

Politics got in the way of free community college, and the Inflation Reduction Act that Mr. Biden signed last month did not include it. Instead, students who borrow would get a subsidy on the back end through the more generous repayment program, years later, if they know it exists, enroll without incident, clear every hurdle over a decade or two and their loan servicer doesn’t make a hash of it.

There are bad words and associated acronyms that we could use to sum all of this up as we scream into the void. But our framing could just as easily center on a single word: Respect.

Professor Herd surprised me this week when she said the word in passing. I asked her to elaborate.

“Respect includes everything from respecting people’s time to not treating them as if they are trying to cheat or game a system,” she said. “It’s about treating them as if they are full-fledged citizens and human beings who have basic rights to access services and benefits for which they’re eligible.”

It seems simple enough. But too much of our personal finance infrastructure becomes adversarial through its complexity. The “prove it” nature of Mr. Biden’s executive action, with its income measurements and repeated checking in with third-party servicers, does not help, as generous as it may turn out to be for people who would eventually pass muster.

Disrespect is calling student debt cancellation “forgiveness” when it’s really an apology for a dysfunctional higher education financing system. Disrespect is doing little to make tuition cheaper on the front end of this process. Disrespect is letting many for-profit schools continue to put people of color deep into debt for certificates or degrees that don’t mean much in the labor market.

Disrespect guarantees full-time employment for personal finance journalists, too. I’m lucky to have the work, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

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Heat and Drought in Europe Strain Energy Supply

ASERAL, Norway — In a Nordic land famous for its steep fjords, where water is very nearly a way of life, Sverre Eikeland scaled down the boulders that form the walls of one of Norway’s chief reservoirs, past the driftwood that protruded like something caught in the dam’s teeth, and stood on dry land that should have been deeply submerged.

“You see the band where the vegetation stops,” said Mr. Eikeland, 43, the chief operating officer of Agder Energi, pointing at a stark, arid line 50 feet above the Skjerkevatn reservoir’s surface. “That’s where the water level should be.”

thousands of northern homes without electricity.

reignited talk of investing in nuclear power and has dried up the waterways crucial for transporting coal.

most severe drought on record in France has also cost the country’s energy production, as nuclear plants responsible for more than 70 percent of the country’s electricity had to cut down activity temporarily to avoid discharging dangerously warm water into rivers.

Many of France’s 56 nuclear plants were already offline for maintenance issues. But the rivers that cool reactors have become so warm as a result of the punishing heat that strict rules designed to protect wildlife have prevented the flushing of the even warmer water from the plants back into the waterways.

power grid operators to hire more workers amid fears of electricity shortages.

In Norway, a winter without much snow and an exceptionally dry spring, including the driest April in 122 years, reduced water levels in lakes and rivers. Shallow waters in Mjosa, the country’s largest lake, kept its famed Skibladner paddle wheel boat tied up at port and prompted city officials in Oslo to send out text messages urging people to take shorter showers and avoid watering lawns.

“Do that for Oslo,” read the text message, “so that we’ll still have water for the most important things in our lives.” In May, Statnett SF, the operator of the national electricity grid, raised the alarm about shortfalls.

But the skies offered no relief and this month, as the country’s hydro reservoirs — especially in the south — approached what Energy Minister Terje Aasland has called “very low” levels, hydropower producers cut output to save water for the coming winter.

The reservoirs were about 60 percent full, about 10 percent less than the average over the previous two decades, according to data from the energy regulator.

Southern Norway, which holds more than a third of the country’s reservoirs, is dotted with red barns on green fields and fishing boats along the coast. On a stream in the Agder region, a sign put up by the energy company, like a relic from another time, warned, “The water level can rise suddenly and without warning.”

But recent months have shown that there is danger in the water level dropping, too. Reservoirs had dwindled to their lowest point in 20 years, at just 46 percent full. One, Rygene, was so low as to force the temporary closing of the plant. On Tuesday, the rainstorms returned, but the ground was so dry, Mr. Eikeland said as he surveyed the basin, that the earth “drinks up all the water” and the water levels in the reservoirs barely rose.

He sped his electric car farther south toward Kristiansand, where a large grid sends electricity around the country’s south and to Denmark. In a fenced-off area above the hill, a Norwegian industrial developer was building a data center for clients such as Amazon, which would suck up a significant share of locally produced electricity in order to cool vast computer servers.

This year’s drought has only highlighted the urgent need for a wider energy transformation, Mr. Eikeland said.

“The drought shows that we are not ready for the big changes,” he said, but also “that we will not accept the high prices.”

Reporting was contributed by Christopher F. Schuetze from Germany, Constant Méheut from France, Gaia Pianigiani from Italy, Isabella Kwai from London and Henrik Pryser Libell from Norway.

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