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Diyarbakir, Turkey / Washington — A Turkish court gave several lengthy prison sentences to pro-Kurdish politicians for instigating protests in southeastern Turkey in 2014 when the Islamic State group attacked the Syrian border town of Kobani.

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, the former co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on Thursday received the longest sentences among the 108 defendants, 18 of whom had been in pretrial detention.

Demirtas was sentenced to 42 years for a total of 47 crimes, including “disrupting the unity and the integrity of the state,” while Yuksekdag received just over 30 years in prison for “attempts to challenge the unity of the state, of inciting criminal acts, and of engaging in propaganda on behalf of a terror organization.”

The trial stemmed from the 2014 Kobani protests, in which hundreds of pro-Kurdish protesters took to the streets in predominantly Kurdish provinces of Turkey over the government’s inaction toward IS militants who were advancing to capture Kobani in October 2014.

HDP, which initiated the call for protests, demanded the opening of a corridor to Kobani through Turkey so that military aid from other parts of Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan could reach the IS-besieged town.

During the protests, in which 37 people died and 761 people were injured, clashes occurred between the security forces and protesters and between the Islamist Kurdish groups and protesters. HDP later called for de-escalation.

At the time of the protests, Ankara was involved in a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terror organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. However, the peace process ended in 2015, and Ankara accused the HDP in connection with the deaths in the 2014 protests. The party denies any involvement.

Convictions

The first hearing in the Kobani trial was held in 2021. In the more than 3,000-page indictment, senior HDP members were listed as defendants and charged with 29 offenses, including “homicide and harming the unity of the state.”

In the end, 12 defendants were acquitted of all charges and 24 defendants were convicted. The other 72 defendants at large are to be tried in the future.

The defendants’ lawyers and the pro-Kurdish DEM Party, the HDP’s successor, view the trial as political. Lawyer Nahit Eren, the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association and a member of the legal team, told VOA Turkish that they would appeal the verdict.

On Friday, Turkish Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc said, “There is no place for calls for violence in democracies.”

“Therefore, in this sense, it is a decision made by our independent and impartial judiciary. This is the decision of the first level court, there are the first and second level of appeal processes. We will wait for the result of these processes together,” he added.

Turkish Deputy Minister of Interior Bulent Turan noted that there were acquittals and sentences in the verdict.

“Although it did not please some people, justice was served,” Turan said in a post on X.

Following the verdict on Thursday, local governors imposed a four-day ban on protests in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Siirt, Tunceli and Batman. On Friday, police officers did not let DEM Party members gather for a demonstration in Diyarbakir but allowed them to make a media statement.

Reactions

Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday that the trial was “manifestly political and unjust.”

“The conviction of Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yuksekdag and other leading Kurdish opposition politicians in a mass trial is the latest move in a campaign of persecution that has robbed mainly Kurdish voters of their chosen representatives, undermined the democratic process and criminalized lawful political speech,” Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in the statement.

The convictions of pro-Kurdish politicians come at a time when “normalization” between the ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition is a hot topic on the Turkish political agenda.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Ozgur Ozel on May 2, and both leaders have been vocal about ending Turkey’s polarized political environment.

Some experts think that the convictions are causing the Kurdish public to question the statements on normalization.

“While the normalization is talked about so much, the fact that such a normalization was not reflected in the judiciary will cause serious damage to the Kurdish public,” Roj Girasun, the director of Diyarbakir-based Rawest Research, told VOA Turkish.

“Is this final verdict a postponement of normalization or a complete shelving? It is too early to answer,” Girasun said.

Another expert and political scientist, Vedat Kacal, thinks that the verdict is a bureaucratic move to try to discourage Kurdish voters from hoping for a solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey through elections.

“[The verdict] can be interpreted as a psychological method of pushing Kurdish voters back into the narrow patterns of the Kurdish right by making them despair about the ballot box and the future of Turkish politics,” Kacal told VOA Turkish.

washington — Hundreds of Syrian mercenaries have been sent by Turkey to Niger in recent months to protect Ankara’s economic and military interests in the West African nation, a rights group and experts said. 

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has researchers throughout Syria, reports that recruitment of Syrian fighters for deployment to Niger has been going on for several months. 

“We have confirmed that about 1,100 Syrian fighters have already been deployed to Niger since September of last year,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory. 

Syrian nationals are being recruited from areas under the control of Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups in northwest Syria, Abdulrahman told VOA. 

Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a France-based advocacy group, said it has also documented such recruitments. 

“These Syrian fighters are being transported from Syria into Turkey, and then using Turkish airports, they are sent [to Niger] by Turkish military airplanes,” Bassam Alahmad, executive director of STJ, told VOA. 

Turkey has in the past deployed Syrian fighters to other conflict zones, including Azerbaijan and Libya, through SADAT International Defense Consultancy, a private military company that reportedly has close ties with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“It’s very clear that in Niger, Turkey is just extending a policy that views Africa as clear area of growth for Turkey in terms of commercial and military interests, and in terms of extending Turkey’s power in the world,” says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the New Lines Institute, a research organization in Washington. 

Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory also said that SADAT was behind the recruitment of Syrian nationals from areas under the control of Turkey. 

The Istanbul-based company declined to comment. VOA also contacted Turkey’s Foreign Ministry but has received no response. 

A Syrian fighter, who went by the name Ahmed, told AFP this week that a Turkey-backed Syrian militia called the Sultan Murad Division was involved in recruiting him for the Niger deployment. 

The Syrian fighter, who was in Aleppo province, said new recruits will be trained at camps before participating in battles in Niger. 

“The first two batches of fighters have already gone, and a third batch will follow soon,” he said. 

Another Syrian fighter told AFP that he was recruited for duty in Niger “on a six-month contract with a salary of $1,500.” 

A third Syrian fighter said that after two weeks of military training, he was tasked with guarding a site near a mine in Niger, according to AFP. 

Syrian fighters have cited economic incentives as the main motive for accepting such job offers. 

The Syrian Observatory said the Turkey-backed Syrian mercenaries have been stationed in the tri-border area between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. 

“For those getting wounded in battle, they receive up to $30,000 in compensation,” Abdulrahman said. “For those getting killed, their families receive up to $60,000.” 

The United Nations says the tri-border region in recent years has become a major hotspot for insecurity, including terror activities carried out by militant groups. 

This comes at a time when Nigerien and U.S. defense officials are discussing plans to withdraw all American forces from the country. Niger’s military junta, which overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in July of last year, has demanded an end to U.S. military presence in the country.

In December 2023, France also ended its military presence in Niger after a similar demand was made by the junta leaders. 

Experts say Niger’s junta recognizes a continued need for security support, so they are increasingly relying on mercenaries deployed by Russia and Turkey. 

“France and the United States were security partners that were there supporting Nigerien forces through cooperation and agreements that didn’t cost the Nigerien public significant tax dollars,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington. “Now upon their departure you have smaller contingents of Russian mercenaries, or these reports of Syrian mercenaries being sent by Turkey.” 

“You’re just witnessing this very strange rhetoric around the reclaiming of national sovereignty by Niger’s junta, which has no legitimate claim to popular political support, and then them ceding that sovereignty to these mercenaries and spending Nigerien tax dollars on hiring these groups whether they be Russian or Turkish,” he told VOA. 

Eizenga said the number of fatalities linked to attacks by Islamist militant groups in Niger has increased significantly since the junta took power in July 2023, arguing that coup leaders’ interests are not aligned with national interests in Niger. 

“The fact that they are inviting and courting these mercenary groups to come in is another example of exactly that,” he said. 

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service with some information from AFP. 

Washington — Two figures dressed in black and with their faces covered are caught on security camera vandalizing the Media Development Foundation office in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.  

The video, taken in the early hours of May 9, shows the individuals putting up posters that falsely claim the nongovernmental organization’s executive director, Tamar Kintsurashvili, is a foreign agent.  

Kintsurashvili told VOA the attack didn’t come as a big surprise. The goal is “to present us as enemies of this country,” she said. 

The vandalism came amid large-scale protests in Georgia over a “foreign agent” law that passed its third and final reading in parliament Tuesday.  

WATCH: Georgia riled by new protests after parliament passes ‘foreign agent’ law

If enacted, the law will require nonprofits and news outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “organizations pursuing the interests of a foreign power.” They would also be required to submit detailed annual financial accounts. Groups that don’t comply would face fines.  

Kintsurashvili’s organization, the Media Development Foundation, receives some foreign funding to support its work. But, said Kintsurashvili, “Being labeled as foreign agent undermines trust in our activities.”  

Last week, hundreds of critics of the law — including around 30 journalists who covered the protests — received threatening phone calls, according to media reports and watchdogs. Numerous offices faced similar vandalism to the Media Development Foundation, and at least six opposition politicians and activists were beaten.

Kintsurashvili worries the harassment will become more common in Georgia now that the law’s enactment appears imminent.  

“The purpose of this legislation is not transparency,” she said. “They want to silence unwanted voices, critical voices,” she continued, referring to the government.  

Georgia’s Washington embassy did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment. As of publication, a VOA request for comment sent Friday via the web portal for the prime minister, who is part of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has received no response. 

President Salome Zourabichvili said she would veto the bill, but the Georgian Dream party — which reintroduced the law last month after protests prompted its withdrawal last year — controls a big enough majority to override her. 

The law’s supporters say it will help bolster transparency and protect Georgian sovereignty. Its opponents say it will be used to silence and intimidate critics of the government.  

“It’s not just about supporting Georgia. It’s about supporting democracy,” said Mamuka Andguladze, chair of the Media Advocacy Coalition group in Tbilisi.  

Nika Gvaramia, a former journalist and the founder of the opposition Ahali political party, told VOA he believes Georgian Dream may use the foreign agent law to try to influence the October elections in its favor.  

Others say the law could also harm Georgia’s bid to join the European Union, which the majority of Georgians support.   

Dubbed the “Russian law” for its resemblance to a similar piece of legislation that the Kremlin has used for years to stamp out dissent, critics worry the law bodes poorly for Georgia’s democratic future and risks pushing Tbilisi squarely into Moscow’s hold. 

“This law will be used to implement some Soviet-style repression in Georgia, and to target critical voices,” said Eto Buziashvili, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Based in Tbilisi, Buziashvili researches propaganda from Russia and the South Caucasus region.  

Buziashvili and other analysts have documented a barrage of Russian propaganda about the bill.  

“We’re seeing a lot of other overlap between the government’s arguments about why the bill is needed and what is being said in Russian and pro-Russian sources,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, told VOA. 

One of the primary narratives is that the Tbilisi protests were organized by the West. 

“The idea that the West is funding and coordinating these protests is something that’s being shared pretty explicitly by Russian channels,” said Kyle Walter, who heads global research at Logically, a British tech startup that fights disinformation. 

Other propaganda narratives attempt to distance the Georgian law from its Russian counterpart by falsely claiming the Georgian one is similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. Another false narrative depicts the law as necessary to stop the West from coercing Georgia into going to war with Russia as a second front of the war in Ukraine.  

Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.  

Many, if not all, of these narratives are not necessarily new, according to Walter and Buziashvili. But they do highlight the Kremlin’s apparent support for Georgia’s foreign agent law. 

The narratives also underscore what’s at stake for a country that was once lauded as a bastion of democracy among former Soviet states but in recent years has found itself increasingly wobbling between the West and the Kremlin.  

“It’s another stage of Russia’s conflict with the West more broadly,” Walter said. 

Journalists and political leaders who spoke with VOA, however, said most Georgians can see through the propaganda. 

“They recognize Russian propaganda very easily. For us, it’s at first sight,” said Eka Kvesitadze, a journalist at the pro-opposition Georgian broadcaster Mtavari Arkhi. 

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded his two-day trip to China Friday after Beijing and Moscow reaffirmed their “strategic relationship” by signing a joint statement and vowing to cooperate against “destructive and hostile” pressure from Washington.

During meetings between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Russian president said Moscow is willing to work with Beijing and other global south countries toward “a multipolar world,” while Xi said the two countries are committed to steering global governance “in the right direction.”

Some analysts say Putin and Xi are trying to emphasize that Beijing and Moscow’s close partnership “is a force for good in the global system.”

“Both leaders want to emphasize that they are creating a more equal environment and inclusive global economic and political system,” said Philipp Ivanov, a China-Russia analyst and the founder of consultancy Geopolitical Risks + Strategy Practice.

In addition to challenging the existing world order led by the United States, Putin and Xi criticized the U.S. and NATO for creating negative effects on regional peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region by creating “closed and exclusive groupings” and expanding military presence.

“In the current geopolitical context, it is necessary to explore the establishment of a sustainable security system in the Eurasian space based on the principle of equal and indivisible security,” read the joint statement signed by Xi and Putin.

Some experts say Putin and Xi view Washington and NATO’s expanding military presence in Asia “as a zero-sum game.” “The logic of military balance is very central to their view of the international order and their target is the web of military alliances of the United States,” said Mathieu Duchatel, director of international studies at the French policy group Institut Montaigne.

He told VOA that one of Xi and Putin’s goals to uphold their partnership is to “undermine” Washington’s alliance networks in Asia.

Beijing’s limits

As Switzerland prepares to host a peace summit dedicated to the Ukraine war next month, Xi and Putin also exchanged views on that ongoing conflict during their meeting Thursday.

They believe that the war should be resolved through a political settlement. In a readout published by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, Xi said the fundamental solution to the war is establishing “a new, balanced, effective, and sustainable security architecture.”

He added that China supports an international peace conference “recognized by Russia and Ukraine at an appropriate time with equal participation and fair discussion of all options.”

Putin said Moscow “appreciates” Beijing’s “objective, just and balanced position on the Ukraine issue” and claimed that Russia is “committed to resolving the Ukraine issue through political negotiations.”

Ivanov said China’s current efforts to help resolve the Ukraine War, including a 12-point peace plan released last February, suggest Beijing is trying to avoid making any commitment. The peace plan “is a diplomatic document rather than any substantive strategy for China’s participation in resolving this war,” he told VOA.

Since neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready to negotiate, Ivanov thinks there is not much China can do to help end the war. “I haven’t seen any concrete steps from China in trying to resolve the war. I’m skeptical about Switzerland’s peace conference and China’s peace plan,” he said.

Lack of effective pressure on China

The meeting between Xi and Putin took place after Xi’s five-day trip to Europe, during which some analysts say Beijing was trying to exploit the disunity within the European Union.

It also follows repeated warnings from the United States about the potential consequences of Beijing’s ongoing support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

During a news conference Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told journalists that China can’t support the Russian war efforts while simultaneously trying to improve relations with the West.

“It can’t have it both ways and want to have [better] relationships with Europe and other countries while simultaneously continuing to fuel the biggest threat to European security in a long time,” he said.

Some experts say China’s decision to uphold its partnership with Russia reflects Beijing’s belief that the West’s warnings about potential sanctions against Chinese entities supporting Russia’s war efforts may not materialize.

“I think Beijing believes that there is nothing that Europe can do so they are asking Europe to show its hand,” Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told VOA by phone.

In his view, the U.S. seems more serious about imposing potential secondary sanctions against Chinese entities while the European Union struggles to determine their responses to Beijing’s support for Moscow.

An upward trajectory of the partnership

Considering Washington’s repeated warnings of sanctioning Chinese entities for supporting Russia’s war efforts, Ivanov said Putin would try to safeguard Russia’s economic relationship with China through his visit.

“I’m pretty confident that there is an active discussion on how to circumvent sanctions, and we will probably see more transactions and import-export activities flowing through third countries, such as those in Central Asia,” he told VOA, adding that one of China and Russia’s goals is to build a geoeconomic system “that is immune from Western sanctions and export controls.”

Despite Western countries’ attempts to pressure or persuade China to stop support for Russia, Ivanov and Duchatel say Beijing will continue to uphold its partnership with Moscow.

“There is no sign that Russia’s access to Chinese dual-use technology has been seriously reduced, and no actions from China suggest a reduced commitment to supporting Russia,” Duchatel told VOA.

Ivanov said while there might be some disagreements between China and Russia, the overall direction of their partnership is “trending upward.” “I don’t think the U.S. or Europe can substantively influence the course of the China-Russia partnership at the moment,” he said.

Washington — Aleksander Dugin, a Russian nationalist ideologue and strong supporter of President Vladimir Putin, has been bombarded with attacks on Chinese social media, where netizens criticized and mocked his Russian expansionist views that had once included the dismembering of China.

Two years after Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine, pro-Russia sentiment has been prevalent on Chinese internet.

But the backlash against Dugin has revealed a less mentioned side of what has so far appeared to be a cozy alliance between Beijing and Moscow — hostility between Chinese nationalists and their Russian counterparts, the result of centuries of territorial disputes and political confrontations that Beijing has been reticent about displaying publicly in recent decades.

On May 6, Dugin opened an account on two of the most popular Chinese social media apps Weibo, China’s X, formerly known as Twitter, and Bilibili, a YouTube-like video site.

In the first video posted on both Weibo and Bilibili, Dugin greeted the Chinese audience and praised Beijing’s economic and political achievements in recent decades.

In the same video, he also criticized an article published in April in The Economist by Feng Yujun, director of Russian and Central Asian studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Feng said in the article that Russia will inevitably lose the Ukraine war.

Dugin countered that Feng and some Chinese people underestimated Russia’s “tenacity and perseverance.”

The video was quickly condemned by Chinese citizens, who posted comments such as “Russia must lose,” which received thousands of likes.

“This is an extremist who is extremely unfriendly to China and has made plans to dismember China,” another message posted by a Weibo user named “Zhixingbenyiti” said.

Dugin, 62, was born in Moscow. In the 1980s, he became an anti-communist dissident.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he began to promote Russian expansionism. He believes that Moscow’s territorial expansion in Eurasia will allow it to counter Western forces led by the United States.

In his 1997 book, Foundations of Geopolitics, Dugin wrote that dismembering China was a necessary step for Russia to become strong. People within Putin’s inner circle have reportedly shown interest in Dugin’s writing, which gave rise to his nickname “Putin’s brain.”

However, Dugin’s attitude toward China has changed significantly in recent years. In 2018, he visited China for the first time. In a speech at Fudan University, he praised China’s economy, culture and leadership in the fight against colonialism.

He also changed his previous support for containing China and said in a speech that China and Russia could work together to “form a very important and non-negligible containment/pull effect” on Western powers.

Dugin is now a senior fellow at Fudan University’s China Institute and one of the columnists for China’s nationalist news organization, Guancha.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Dugin said in a column that the alliance between China and Russia would “mean the irreversible end of Western hegemony.”

Philipp Ivanov, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told VOA that “Dugin is an opportunist. As the Ukraine war dramatically accelerated the alignment between China and Russia, his position started to change, resulting in his current attempt to engage with China’s intellectual and broader community.”

Ivanov also thinks Dugin’s influence on the Kremlin has been exaggerated.

Since joining Chinese social media, Dugin has gained more than 100,000 followers on Weibo and 25,000 followers on BiliBili. He has published fewer than five posts on Weibo, but nearly every one of them has more than 1,000 comments, most of which criticized him.

Under a post in which Dugin supported Putin on his fifth presidential term, people responded with comments such as “Russia is about to lose the war” and “The gates of hell are waiting for you.”

Wang Xiaodong, China’s most influential nationalist scholar, shared a Weibo post he made two years ago criticizing Dugin and Chinese pro-Russian groups.

“Introducing Dugin’s ideas is not because I worry that the Kremlin will implement his ideas; He has the intention but not the strength! I just want to tell the Chinese people how some Russians, including elites in the powerful departments, view China. Do we Chinese need to risk our lives for them?” the post read.

Ivanov was not surprised by the attacks on Dugin on the Chinese internet.

“While Chinese netizens may support Putin’s anti-Western/anti-US agenda, they are skeptical or outright negative about Russia’s assault on an independent country’s sovereignty and Russian expansionism, nationalism and chauvinism (which Dugin represents),” he told VOA in an email.

He said the history of China-Russia relations is predominantly about confrontation, competition and mistrust.

Among the attacks on Dugin, many netizens also brought up former Chinese territories that Russia occupied in the past 200 years.

“For the sake of ever-lasting friendship between China and Russia, please return Sakhalin and Vladivostok,” one Weibo comment posted by “lovejxcecil” read.

Although China has not been involved in the war, the Russia-Ukraine war has been a hot topic on the Chinese internet.

According to Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor, Dugin’s joining the platform undoubtedly brought more traffic to Weibo. However, it also means that Weibo needs to invest more resources in censorship to prevent him from making remarks that Beijing considers sensitive.

“He is a foreigner. He has no idea about China’s ‘political correctness’ or where the boundaries are,” Liu said. “This risk will have to be taken care of by Weibo, which brought him in.”

On Thursday, Dugin posted on Weibo that China and Russia could achieve “anything” together. His comment section has been turned off. 

LONDON — Russian forces are expanding their attacks on Ukrainian border settlements close to the northeastern city of Kharkiv, opening up a new front in the war, as Kyiv struggles to hold off a renewed Russian offensive. 

Speaking Thursday on a visit to Kharkiv, where he held a meeting with senior military leaders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the situation remained “extremely difficult” and that his forces were strengthening their presence in the region.

With U.S. and European weapons finally due to arrive on the front lines in the coming weeks, can Ukraine hold back Moscow’s invading troops? 

Kharkiv offensive

Mobile units of Russian troops are attempting to capture Ukrainian villages including Vovchansk and Lyptsi, which lies 30 kilometers north of Kharkiv.

Ukraine has fired missiles from the border region into Russia, including deadly strikes on the Russian city of Belgorod. Moscow wants to stop the attacks, said defense analyst Patrick Bury of Britain’s Bath University.

“There’s multiple reasons, I think, why Russia would try something here: obviously to create a buffer zone, but also to test the defenses and see what’s going on. But the way (Russian forces) are set up — and the amount of troops that they have, maybe 30,000 to 40,000, not that much armor, attacking in small groups of infantry — it doesn’t really suggest that they’re trying to sort of encircle Kharkiv or anything like that,” Bury told VOA.

Russian advance

Kyiv said Thursday its defensive moves had slowed the speed of Moscow’s advance. Russian attacks are likely to continue, said analyst Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Russia’s aim is not to achieve a grand breakthrough, but rather to convince Ukraine that it can keep up an inexorable advance, kilometer by kilometer, along the front,” Watling wrote in an email to VOA.

“Having stretched the Ukrainians out, the contours of the Russian summer offensive are easy to discern. First, there will be the push against Kharkiv. Ukraine must commit troops to defend its second largest city and given the size of the Russian group of forces in the area, this will draw in reserves of critical material, from air defenses to artillery.”

“Second, Russia will apply pressure on the other end of the line, initially threatening to reverse Ukraine’s gains from its 2023 offensive, and secondly putting at risk the city of Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine should be able to blunt this attack, but this will require the commitment of reserve units,” Watling added.

Western weapons

Ukrainian forces are still waiting for the bulk of the weapons deliveries under the United States’ $60 billion aid package that was finally passed last month, after a six-month delay.

“The United States aid is crucial, so the unfortunate pause in the delivery of arms had a significant impact on the situation at the front and this is what we are seeing now,” said Ukrainian lawmaker Serhii Rakhmanin, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security.

Ukraine says Russian jets and missiles are easily able to attack their positions, before infantry move in. Kyiv has repeatedly asked for more air defense systems, especially U.S.-made Patriot missiles. Germany has agreed to supply two Patriot batteries to Ukraine, and it’s reported that the U.S. is also working on supplying another unit.

The weapons will start to arrive in the coming weeks, analyst Patrick Bury said.

“The U.S. has pre-positioned stocks of stuff in Germany, for example, and also has strategic airlift so it can move stuff quickly over (from the US) should it need to,” he said.

“But it will take some time to be producing the number of shells that Ukraine needs at the moment, and they’re outgunned at about at least five or six to one at the moment by Russian shells,” he added.

Mobilization

Last month, Ukraine passed a mobilization bill to address a shortage of personnel. RUSI’s Watling said Russia had amassed a force of 510,000 troops.

“This means that Russia has established significant numerical superiority over the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” he said.

The next three months will be crucial for Ukraine, according to lawmaker Rakhmanin.

“The Russians currently have a window of opportunity. The power of Ukrainian Armed Forces has decreased, and Russians feel it. They have amassed quite a sufficient amount of resources — weapons, ammunition, manpower and now they are trying to use up a maximum of their reserves. They are trying to spread our forces thin across the entire front line,” Rakhmanin told Reuters Wednesday.

Bleak outlook

Can Ukraine and its Western allies turn the tide of the war?

“The chances of them taking back significant territory now in the medium term seem to be slipping away,” said analyst Bury. “Unless there’s some sort of step change in Western support — a large force-generation package and a long-term strategy for what success looks like — none of which at the moment are forthcoming, then I think Ukraine stays on the defensive and holds what it has,” he said.

RUSI’s Watling agrees: “The outlook in Ukraine is bleak. However, if Ukraine’s allies engage now to replenish Ukrainian munitions stockpiles, help to establish a robust training pipeline, and make the industrial investments to sustain the effort, then Russia’s summer offensive can be blunted, and Ukraine will receive the breathing space it needs to regain the initiative.”

Russian forces are expanding their attacks on Ukrainian border settlements close to the northeastern city of Kharkiv, opening up a new front in the war. With U.S. and European weapons finally due to arrive on the front lines in the coming weeks following delays, can Ukraine hold back Moscow’s invading troops? Henry Ridgwell has more

Copenhagen, Denmark — Fifteen EU states have demanded a further tightening of the bloc’s asylum policy, making it easier to transfer undocumented migrants to third countries, including when they are rescued at sea.

The demand, sent in a letter to the European Commission that AFP received on Thursday, comes less than a month before European Parliament elections, in which far-right anti-immigration parties are forecast to make gains.

The letter asks the European Union’s executive arm to “propose new ways and solutions to prevent irregular migration to Europe.”

The group includes Italy and Greece, which receive a substantial number of the people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach the EU — many seeking to escape poverty, war or persecution, according to the International Organization for Migration.

They want the EU to toughen up its recently adopted asylum pact, which introduces tighter controls on those seeking to enter the 27-nation bloc.

That reform includes speedier vetting of people arriving without documents, new border detention centers and faster deportation for rejected asylum applicants.

The 15 proposed in their letter the introduction of “mechanisms… aimed at detecting, intercepting — or in cases of distress, rescuing — migrants on the high seas and bringing them to a predetermined place of safety in a partner country outside the EU, where durable solutions for those migrants could be found.”

They said it should be easier to send asylum seekers to third countries while their requests for protection are assessed.

They cited the example of a controversial deal that Italy has struck with non-EU Albania, under which Rome can send thousands of asylum seekers plucked from Italian waters to holding camps in the Balkan country until their cases are processed.

The concept in EU asylum law of what constitutes “safe third countries” should be reassessed, they continued.

Safe country debate

EU law stipulates that people arriving in the bloc without documents can be sent to a third country, where they could have requested asylum — so long as that country is deemed safe and the applicant has a genuine link with it.

That would exclude schemes like the divisive law passed by the UK, which has now left the EU, enabling London to refuse all irregular arrivals the right to request asylum and send them to Rwanda.

Rights groups accuse the African country — ruled with an iron fist by President Paul Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide that killed around 800,000 people — of cracking down on free speech and political opposition.

The 15 nations said they wanted the EU to make deals with third countries along the main migration routes, citing the example of the arrangement it made with Turkey in 2016 to take in Syrian refugees from the war in their home country.

The letter was signed by Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.

It was not signed by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has resisted EU plans to share out responsibility across the bloc for hosting asylum seekers, or to contribute to the costs of that plan.

As Russia ramps up its offensive in eastern Ukraine, officials with the U.S. command in Eastern Europe say it’s urgent for NATO to be ready for a possible confrontation. VOA’s Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze talked to the U.S. and Polish commanders during a U.S. Army transfer of authority ceremony in Boleslawiec, Poland. VOA footage and video editing by Daniil Batushchak.

Tbilisi, Georgia — Hundreds of protesters donning gas masks and protective goggles shut down streets in Tbilisi on Tuesday after Georgia’s parliament passed a so-called “foreign influence” law that critics call a copy of Russia’s foreign agent law, heavily relied upon by the Kremlin to suppress dissent.

Ruling Georgian Dream party lawmakers approved the legislation despite warnings from Washington and Brussels that such a move might threaten Georgia’s partnership with the West.

For over a month, tens of thousands of Georgians have flooded the streets to protest the legislation in the largest rallies the country has seen since the nation’s independence from the Soviet Union.

Protester Giorgi Iashvili was just 20 when he was called up as a reservist in 2008 to fight in the war that Russian military and Moscow-backed-separatist forces launched against his country.

Sixteen years later he finds himself once again rallying against Russia’s ongoing efforts to subjugate his country, this time, he says, with tacit assistance of the Georgian government itself.

As a young cybersecurity professional, Iashvili firmly believes enactment of the foreign agent law is inexorably pushing the country, a fifth of which is already occupied by Russia, deeper into Russia’s orbit.

“In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia directly and conventionally. In recent years, however, it has resorted to hybrid methods — disinformation, influence operations, borderization [creeping annexation], infiltration, and cyber campaigns,” he told VOA’s Georgian Service. “Both this law and recent events are evidently part of this hybrid warfare.”

Like many of his young fellow protesters in Georgia’s capital Tuesday, Iashvili appeared hopeful amid unsettling circumstances.

“I believe that a significant part of our society remains vigilant against these threats and refuses to fall victim to these information operations,” he said. “The current wave of protests serves as confirmation.”

Targets foreign funding

Georgia’s foreign influence law requires civil society organizations, media and others that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign interests. The law primarily targets U.S. and European Union democracy assistance programs.

The public’s discontent with the government has been simmering gradually. The Georgian Dream-led government, now in its third term, is said to be controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who amassed his wealth in 1990s Moscow and has since strategically appointed loyalists to key government positions.

Ivanishvili rejects that accusation, as do the Georgian Dream officials who also deny that they’re quietly working to support Russian efforts to undermine Georgian democracy.

The government has long conducted a two-pronged foreign policy, working with Western partners to appease its overwhelmingly pro-European population while simultaneously warming up to Moscow under the pretext of preventing another conflict. It has claimed publicly to be moving the country in a westward direction while fomenting anti-Western sentiment domestically.

While Georgia’s ruling government has allowed a large number Russian men fleeing the military draft to enter the country, it has refused entry to members of Russia’s military opposition and failed to join Western countries imposing sanctions on Russia.

Georgian Dream leaders blame the war in Ukraine on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, putting their government at odds with the West. Georgian authorities have criticized their Ukrainian counterparts and repeatedly accused Ukraine and its Western supporters of attempting to embroil Georgia in the conflict, labeling them the “global war party.”

“The protests are not merely about a Russian law,” Helen Khoshtaria, the leader of the Droa opposition party, told VOA. “It’s about the survival of Georgia and its aspiration to remain a free, European nation, which Ivanishvili has jeopardized. He openly stated that the enemies of this country are not Russia, its actual enemy … but the U.S. and the EU, when the overwhelming majority of this country, the entire nation, holds the opposite belief.”

Giorgi Vashadze, the leader of the Strategy Agmashenebeli opposition party, told VOA: “We aspire to be part of the European Union. We envision a Georgia without Russia, without Russian oligarchs.”

U.S. anti-Nazi law cited

The Georgian government has staunchly defended the law, calling it similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA — a comparison U.S. officials reject.

Enacted in 1938 to unmask Nazi propaganda in the United States, FARA requires people to disclose to the Justice Department when they advocate, lobby or perform public relations work in the United States on behalf of a foreign government or political entity.

“Our appeal to the U.S. is to think about partnership and not take counterproductive steps,” Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said after meeting with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien in Tbilisi on Wednesday.

The protests have taken place almost every day since the beginning of April. For the first time in years, those taking to the streets are self-organized grassroots activists without a leader or political party behind them.

Georgian authorities have arrested dozens of demonstrators over the past few days. Dozens have been assaulted or intimidated by riot police, prompting widespread condemnation by local watchdogs and Georgia’s Western partners.

“They have detained scores of youth and representatives of civil society,” former State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Buka Petriashvili told VOA. “We are witnessing the establishment of Ivanishvili’s autocratic regime and obstruction of Georgia’s path toward the European Union. Georgia will never accept the blocking of its path toward the European Union and will fight until we prevail.”

У повідомленні не називають імені підозрюваного, втім за матеріалами справи можна зрозуміти, що мова йде про Василя Лозинського

Caen, France — French police Wednesday were hunting for a group of gunmen who killed two prison officers in an attack at a motorway toll booth that freed a convict linked to gangland drug killings.

The killings and dramatic getaway by the perpetrators have shocked France, with authorities under pressure to catch those responsible, who all remain at large.

“We have put a lot of resources into finding not only the person who escaped”, but also “the gang that released him under such despicable circumstances,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told the RTL broadcaster.

“We are putting in considerable resources, we are making a lot of progress,” he added.

On Tuesday, more than 450 police officers and gendarmes were mobilized just for the search in the northern department of Eure where the attack took place, he said.

‘We will be uncompromising’

Two prison officers were killed in the attack and three others wounded, Paris prosecutor Laure Beccuau said late on Tuesday.

One of the injured men was fighting for his life in hospital and two more were receiving critical care, she said.

The incident took place late on Tuesday morning at a road toll in Incarville in the Eure region of northern France.

The inmate was being transported back to his prison in the town of Evreux after he was questioned by a judge in the regional center of Rouen in Normandy.

The prosecutor said the prison van was rammed head-on by a stolen Peugeot vehicle as it went through the toll crossing.

But the van and another vehicle in the prison convoy were also followed by an Audi.

Gunman emerged from the two cars and shot at both prison vehicles.

“We will be uncompromising,” President Emmanuel Macron said on X, describing the attack as a “shock.”

French television channels broadcast footage of the attack taken by surveillance cameras at the toll, showing the Peugeot colliding head on with the prison van.

In the video, several gunmen dressed in black emerge from both attack vehicles. A firefight ensues and one individual appears to be guided away from the van by the gunmen.

A vehicle believed to have been used by the attackers was later found as a burned-out wreck at a different location.

‘Never have imagined ‘

The prison officers who died, both men, were the first to be killed in the line of duty since 1992, according to Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti.

One of them was married and had twin children while the other “left a wife who is five months pregnant,” he said.

Prison officer unions announced a day of minimum service on Wednesday and asked for urgent measures to improve the safety of staff.

Dupond-Moretti said he would meet union representatives on Wednesday.

“We are in mourning,” Vanessa Lefaivre, of the FO union at the Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris told AFP.

“We would never have imagined that prison staff would be killed like this.”

‘Kills more than terrorism’

Prosecutor Beccuau named the inmate as Mohamed Amra, born in 1994, saying that last week he had been convicted of aggravated robbery and charged in a case of abduction leading to death.

But a source close to the case said that Amra was suspected of involvement in drug trafficking and of ordering gangland killings.

Another source said he is suspected of being at the head of a criminal network. Some media said he had the nickname “La Mouche” (the fly).

His lawyer Hugues Vigier said Amra had already made an escape attempt at the weekend by sawing the bars of his cell and said he was shocked by the “inexcusable” and “insane” violence.

“This does not correspond to the impression that I had of him,” the lawyer told BFMTV.

The incident came on the same day as the French Senate published a damning report warning that government measures had been unable to prevent the flourishing of the narcotics industry in France.

“Narco-banditry kills many people, much more than terrorism,” said Darmanin, also pointing to the responsibility of drug users.

“One cannot at the same time cry for the widows and orphans of the Eure toll booth attack and then smoke a joint… this is called schizophrenia.”

Law and order is a major issue in French politics ahead of next month’s European elections and the prison van ambush sparked fierce reactions from politicians, especially the far right.

“It is real savagery that hits France every day,” said Jordan Bardella, the top candidate for the far-right National Rally (RN), which is leading opinion polls for the elections.

Washington —  In a move that contrasts with the United States, South Korea had its ambassador in Moscow attend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, seemingly leaving its options open for maintaining diplomatic relations with Russia amid Moscow’s deepening ties with Pyongyang.

Seoul said it based its decision for Ambassador Lee Do-hoon to attend Putin’s inauguration “after considering all circumstances surrounding South Korean-Russian bilateral relations.” 

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson made the remark to VOA’s Korean Service on Friday.

The U.S. and most European Union countries boycotted Putin’s inauguration held May 7 at the Grand Kremlin Palace.

He was reelected in March for his fifth term in office as Russia’s war in Ukraine raged on for more than two years since its invasion in 2022. Moscow has turned to Pyongyang to replenish its stockpile of arms to fight Ukraine.

“The U.S. directed our embassy not to attend the inauguration in protest of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” a State Department spokesperson said Thursday in an email sent to VOA’s Korean Service.

Japan also did not send a representative to the ceremony. Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kobayashi Maki said during a news briefing held in Tokyo the day after the inauguration that its decision was “based upon comprehensive consideration of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

VOA contacted the Russian Embassy in Seoul for comment on Lee’s attendance. Its spokesperson, Mira Dzhamalidinova, emailed that it has “no comments for VOA.”

 

Robert Rapson, who served as charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 2018 to 2021, said, “Ambassador Lee’s attendance at Putin’s inauguration was a small but symbolically significant step by Seoul to signal to Moscow its interest in improving, or at least more effectively managing, deteriorating bilateral relations.”

He continued, “It put [South] Korea clearly out of a public messaging step with the U.S. and its like-minded partners,” and demonstrated “adjustments to its ‘signature value-based’ foreign policy.”

Relations between South Korea and Russia have declined as military ties between Moscow and Pyongyang deepened since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia in September.

In April, South Korea sanctioned two Russian vessels involved in delivering military supplies from North Korea to Russia. In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called Seoul’s move “an unfriendly step” that “will affect South Korea-Russia relations in a negative way.”  [[ https://www.voanews.com/a/us-pushes-back-at-russia-s-protest-over-south-korean-sanctions/7563881.html ]] 

 

“Washington was likely displeased with South Korea’s decision to send a representative to Putin’s inauguration,” said Dan DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

“This is a subtle, low-cost way for the Yoon government [of South Korea] to signal to Moscow that differences over Ukraine and North Korea notwithstanding, it’s not going to mimic the U.S. policy of diplomatic isolation” toward Russia, he continued.

DePetris added that Seoul likely allowed its representative to attend Putin’s inauguration “precisely because North Korea-Russia bilateral ties have strengthened over the last two years” and wants to “keep all options on the table.”

Pyongyang-Moscow ties have expanded to include several visits to Russia by North Korean delegations recently. On Tuesday, North Korea sent a science and technology delegation to Russia to attend a meeting on trade, economy and science to be held in Moscow, according to North Korea’s state-run KCNA.

Also, passenger train services between the two countries resumed since they were suspended after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Russia’s northeastern region of Primorsky Krai, bordering North Korea.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center’s Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy Project, said, “Moscow’s new partnership with North Korea may have been a factor” that prompted Seoul to make its representation at Putin’s inauguration.

He continued, however, “I doubt Seoul has illusions about its ability to restrain Russia’s ties with Pyongyang” but is “perhaps focused on maintaining economic ties” with Moscow.

South Korea’s exports to Russia totaled $6.33 billion in 2022, while its imports from Russia amounted to $12.8 billion in the same year, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an online platform for data collection and distribution. South Korea’s investment in Russia reached $4.16 billion in the same year, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry.  

tehran, iran — Iran Tuesday condemned as “interfering” a French Foreign Ministry statement accusing it of “state hostage-taking” and “blackmail” in the detention of four French nationals.

“We strongly condemn such unprofessional, interfering and inappropriate positions while resorting to false references,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani told state news agency IRNA.

“The people mentioned in the statement of the French Foreign Ministry were arrested based on solid evidence and witnesses, and the French government is well aware of their crimes.”

Teacher Cecile Kohler and her partner, Jacques Paris, were detained in Iran in May 2022. They are accused of seeking to stir up labor unrest, accusations their families vehemently deny.

“France condemns this policy of state hostage-taking and this constant blackmail by the Iranian authorities,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 7, calling for the couple’s release.

Kanani called on the French “to avoid resorting to such statements and using words outside of diplomatic decency, which have negative consequences on relations between the two countries.”

Kohler and Paris both made televised confessions after their arrests that France described as “forced.”

Two other French citizens are held by Iran: a man identified only by his first name, Olivier, and Louis Arnaud, a banking consultant who was sentenced to five years in jail on national security charges last year.

The four are among at least a dozen European passport holders in Iranian custody, some of them dual nationals.

Washington — The U.S. Treasury on Tuesday put sanctions on a Russian citizen and three Russia-based companies it said were trying to evade U.S. sanctions in a scheme that could have unfrozen more than $1.5 billion belonging to Russian metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska.

Deripaska, who himself was placed under U.S. sanctions in April 2018, branched out into metals trading as the Soviet Union crumbled, making a fortune by buying up stakes in aluminum factories. Forbes ranked his fortune this year at $2.8 billion.

The Treasury said that in June 2023 Deripaska coordinated with Russian citizens Dmitrii Beloglazov, the owner of Russia-based financial services firm Obshchestvo S Ogranichennoi Otvetstvennostiu Titul (Titul), on a planned transaction to sell Deripaska’s frozen shares in a European company.  

Within weeks of this, Russia-based financial services firm Aktsionernoe Obshchestvo Iliadis was set up as a subsidiary of Titul. In early 2024, Iliadis acquired Russia-based investment holding company International Company Joint Stock Company Rasperia Trading Limited (Rasperia), which holds Deripaska’s frozen shares. 

The Treasury said sanctions were imposed on Beloglazov, Titul, and Iliadis on Tuesday for operating or having operated in Russia’s financial services sector. It said Rasperia was sanctioned for being owned or controlled by, or having acted or purported to act on behalf of Iliadis.