WNBA Star Griner’s Court Case to Begin in Russia

The trial of professional women’s basketball player Brittney Griner is set to begin Friday in a Russian courtroom.

The WNBA star has been detained in Russia for more than four months and is facing 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges.

At the time of her arrest in February, customs officials say the Olympic gold medalist was in possession of vape cartridges that contained hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia.

Political analysts say Griner’s arrest and trial could not have happened at a worse time. Arrested just a few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many people believe that Griner has become a political pawn between the United States and Russia.

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Indonesia Leader Targets Food Crisis During Russia-Ukraine Peace Mission

Indonesia’s president ended a trip to Ukraine and Russia saying he hoped for progress reintegrating global food and fertilizer supply lines disrupted by the conflict, and he offered to be a diplomatic bridge between the two nations.

President Joko Widodo, who is the G-20 president this year, was speaking at a news conference alongside his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after a bilateral meeting in Moscow on Thursday.

His trip followed a visit to Kyiv on Wednesday where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“I really appreciate President Putin who said earlier that he will provide security guarantee for food and fertilizer supplies from both Russia and Ukraine. This is good news,” said the Indonesian president, who is widely known as Jokowi.

“For the sake of humanity, I also support the United Nations’ efforts to reintegrate Russian food and fertilizer commodities and Ukrainian food commodities to reenter the world supply chain,” he said.

Jokowi said he had urged leaders of the G-7 during a meeting he attended in Germany this week to ensure sanctions on Russia did not affect food and fertilizer supplies.

The war in Ukraine has caused major disruptions to global trade, with the prices of grain and wheat soaring amid a blockade of Ukrainian seaports and sanctions on Russian commodities such as oil, gas and fertilizer.

Speaking alongside Jokowi in Moscow, Putin denied Russia was blocking Ukrainian grain exports. 

“The Ukrainian military has mined the approaches to their ports,” he said, “No one prevents them from clearing those mines and we guarantee the safety of shipping grain out of there.”

As G-20 president this year, Jokowi has sought to patch up divisions in the group exposed by the war in Ukraine and threats to boycott the summit if Russia attended, as well as leveraging his country’s non-aligned position to push for peace.

On Thursday, he said he had conveyed a message from Zelenskyy to Putin, and said Indonesia remained willing to be a “communication bridge” between the two leaders. He did not say what was in the message.

Separately, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she had held phone calls with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, among others, about the food crisis and possible ways to re-integrate Ukraine and Russia into the global food chain.

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Mattis: Putin Goes to Bed at Night ‘Fearful’

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday lobbed insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin and slammed his invasion of Ukraine as “incompetent” and “foolish.”

At a speech in Seoul, Mattis compared Putin to the kind of paranoid characters created by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“Putin is a creature straight out of Dostoevsky. He goes to bed at night angry, he goes to bed at night fearful, he goes to bed at night thinking Russia is surrounded by nightmares,” Mattis said.

Mattis has made relatively few public comments since resigning as Pentagon chief in 2018 over a foreign policy disagreement with former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In his speech, Mattis did not address those disagreements in a direct way, saying only Trump had overseen a nontraditional foreign policy that had challenged U.S. relations with its allies.

Mattis’ most pointed comments focused on Putin, whom he portrayed as unhinged and unable to make smart decisions due to the lack of people giving him sound advice.

Asked about the biggest lesson that could be drawn from Russia’s war in Ukraine, Mattis replied, “Don’t have incompetent generals in charge of your operations.”

He also said the Russian invasion was “tactically incompetent” and “strategically foolish.”

“War is enough of a tragedy without adding stupidity on top,” he said.

Mattis also criticized China’s growing relations with Russia and its unwillingness to oppose the war in Ukraine.

A country “cannot be great if they support Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

Addressing his tenure under Trump, Mattis spoke of “raucous times” and called Trump an “unusual leader” but did not directly criticize the former president.

“Democracies will at times go popularist and will at times break with tradition,” he said. “It’s the nature of democracies at times to be testing ideas and all.”

Americans, Mattis said, should respond by “keep[ing] faith in the institutions” and “in those that disagree with you.”

Mattis’ speech was in South Korea, a U.S. ally that dramatically felt the effects of Trump’s nontraditional foreign policy.

Asked how he felt about Trump’s summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Mattis said he was never optimistic about the talks, but that the diplomatic effort was the “right thing to do.”

“As far as what came out of it, nothing. I saw nothing that came out of it,” he said.

Mattis also praised South Korea’s new president, former chief prosecutor Yoon Suk Yeol, for wanting South Korea to play a bigger role in the world.

Yoon, a conservative who has explicitly embraced the United States, has said he wants South Korea to become a “global pivotal state.” This week, Yoon attended the NATO summit in Madrid,  the first time a South Korean leader had attended such a meeting.

Mattis praised Yoon’s presence at the NATO summit, saying “a globally pivotal state in South Korea is in all our best interests.”

He warned, however, against voices in Seoul who have recently called for South Korea to acquire its own nuclear weapons.

“You don’t need nuclear weapons on the peninsula to ensure an extended deterrence so long as there is trust between the ROK and the United States,” he said, referring to an abbreviation of South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.

Opinion polls consistently show that most South Koreans support their country acquiring their own nuclear weapons, especially as North Korea continues developing its own arsenal.

As a candidate, Yoon said he would ask the United States to agree to a nuclear weapons sharing arrangement, or to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons that Washington withdrew from South Korea in the early 1990s — notions quickly rejected by the U.S. State Department.

To avoid such an outcome, the United States and South Korea should continue to build trust, including by demonstrating “extended deterrence” against North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Mattis said.

“I think anything you can do to avoid having these weapons yourselves, you should do. They are horrible weapons,” he said.

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Explainer: Why Indonesia’s Leader is Visiting Kyiv, Moscow

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Group of 20 leading rich and developing nations, is visiting Ukraine and Russia for meetings with the leaders of the two warring nations after attending the Group of Seven summit in Germany.

Widodo has sought to maintain a neutral position since the start of the war, and he hopes his efforts will lead to a cease-fire and eventual direct talks between the two leaders.

What does Widodo hope to achieve?

Widodo said he wants to encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to start a dialogue on ending the war, which has caused global food shortages and surges in commodity prices.

“My mission is to build peace, because the war must be stopped and (its effects) on the food supply chain must be lifted,” Widodo said, “I will invite President Putin to open a dialogue and, as soon as possible, to carry out a cease-fire and stop the war.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has choked global markets and contributed to higher prices of meat, dairy products, cereals, sugar and vegetable oils.

“These visits are not only important for Indonesians but also for other developing countries in order to prevent the people of developing and low-income countries from falling into extreme poverty and hunger,” Widodo said.

Why does the war in Ukraine matter to Widodo?

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said it’s important to achieve a resumption of grain exports from Ukraine and food and fertilizer exports from Russia to end shortages and reduce prices.

Rising costs of cooking oil prompted the Indonesian government to temporarily ban exports of palm oil products amid a series of student protests against skyrocketing food prices. Indonesia resumed exports of crude palm oil a month later.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest exporters of palm oil, accounting for 85% of global production.

Why might Putin and Zelenskyy listen to Widodo?

As this year’s G-20 president, Indonesia has sought to remain neutral in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been guarded in its comments.

Widodo has said he offered Indonesian support in peace efforts to both Putin and Zelenskyy, a move seen as an attempt to unite the G-20 forum divided by the ongoing conflict.

The United States and its allies in the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations — a subset of the G-20 — have sought to punish Putin in as many ways as possible, including by threatening a boycott of the G-20 summit to be held later this year in Bali unless Putin is removed from the forum.

Widodo has invited Zelenskyy to the summit along with Putin in hopes it will appease proponents of both Ukraine and Russia and limit any distraction from the forum’s other agenda items. Ukraine is not a member of the forum, but Russia is.

What are his chances of success?

Widodo will be the first Asian leader to visit the warring countries.

His efforts come weeks after Russia said it was looking over an Italian proposal to end the conflict in Ukraine. Talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the hostilities have essentially ground to a halt.

The Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers met for inconclusive talks in Turkey in March, followed by a meeting of the delegations in Istanbul, which also failed to bring about concrete results.

Gilang Kembara, an international politics researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an Indonesian think tank, is pessimistic that Putin will listen to Widodo to find a peaceful solution to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

“The chance for that is very slim,” said Kembara, “Indonesia does not have great experience as a peace broker outside the Southeast Asia region.”

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NATO Ends Summit with Strengthened Posture Against Russia, China

NATO leaders concluded their three-day meeting in Madrid Thursday with the Western security alliance strengthening its defense against Russian aggression, warning of global challenges posed by China and inviting neutral countries Finland and Sweden into the group.

U.S. President Joe Biden described the summit as “historic.”

“The last time NATO drafted a new mission statement was 12 years ago,” Biden said, referring to a document also known as the alliance’s Strategic Concept.

“At that time, it characterized Russia as a partner, and it didn’t mention China. The world has changed, changed a great deal since then, and NATO is changing as well. At this summit, we rallied our alliances to meet both the direct threats that Russia poses to Europe and the systemic challenges that China poses to a rules-based world order. And we’ve invited two new members to join NATO,” Biden said.

Biden reiterated that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has only strengthened NATO.

“He tried to weaken us, expected our resolve to fracture but he’s getting exactly what he did not want,” Biden said. “He wanted the ‘Finland-ization’ of NATO. He got the ‘NATO-ization’ of Finland.”

On Wednesday Putin dismissed the imminent expansion of the Western alliance.

“With Sweden and Finland, we don’t have the problems that we have with Ukraine. They want to join NATO, go ahead,” Putin told Russian state television.

“But they must understand there was no threat before, while now, if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats for the territories from which threats towards us are created,” he warned.

As it sets to expand, NATO leaders agreed on a massive increase in troop deployments across Europe. A total of 300,000 soldiers will be placed at high readiness across the continent starting next year to defend against potential military attacks by Moscow on any member of the alliance – what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg characterized as “the most serious security crisis” since the Second World War.      

To bolster NATO’s defense, the United States is also set to establish a permanent headquarters for the U.S. 5th Army Corps in Poland, add a rotational brigade of 3,000 troops and 2,000 other personnel to be headquartered in Romania, and send two additional squadrons of F-35 fighter jets to Britain.   

Reaffirming commitments made by other Western leaders, Biden said the U.S. will stand firm against Russia’s aggression. He offered little indication the conflict would conclude anytime soon, suggesting that Americans would have to bear high gas prices longer.

“As long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” he said.

China challenge

Biden said the summit has brought together “democratic allies and partners from the Atlantic and the Pacific” to defend the rules-based global order against challenges from China, including its “abusive and coercive trade practices.” 

NATO leaders have also called out the “deepening strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow as one of the alliance’s concerns.

Beijing is not providing military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stated support for Moscow over “sovereignty and security” issues. The country continues to purchase massive amounts of Russian oil, gas and coal. 

Biden noted that for the first time in the transatlantic alliance’s history, Asia Pacific leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea participated at the summit.

With the reemergence of great power conflict, a strategic competitor sitting in each region, and an evolving Russia-China relationship, there are many common challenges that European and Asia-Pacific partners must discuss together, said Mirna Galic, senior policy analyst on China and East Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.

Galic told VOA these include issues already being worked on, such as cyber defense, maritime security and space, as well as those that will require some new thinking, such as intermediate-range nuclear forces, missile defense, inter-theater deterrence and defense, and how to push back on great power use of force in contravention of international norms.

“The last is certainly relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine but also has parallels with China and Taiwan, which is why Ukraine is seen as more than a European security issue,” Galic said.

In his remarks at the end of the NATO summit, Biden also touted the West’s latest counter to China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“We also launched what started off to be the Build Back Better notion, but it’s morphed into a Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment,” he said referring to the “Build Back Better World” initiative announced at the 2021 meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Cornwall, UK and relaunched earlier this week as the PGII at the G-7 summit of leading industrialized nations in Krün, Germany.

Officials say PGII will offer developing nations $600 billion in infrastructure funding by 2027 and be a better alternative to China’s BRI that critics have characterized as “debt trap diplomacy.”

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Кулеба обговорив з Чавушоглу розблокування експорту зерна з України

Перед цим президент Туреччини повідомив про намір провести телефонні переговори з Зеленським та Путіним щодо «зернового коридору»

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Report: Only 15% of World Enjoys Free Expression of Information

A Britain-based group says its latest study of worldwide free expression rights shows only 15% of the global population lives where people can receive or share information freely.

In its 2022 Global Expression Report, Article19, an international human rights organization, said that in authoritarian nations such as China, Myanmar and Russia, and in democracies such as Brazil and India, 80% of the global population live with less freedom of expression than a decade ago.

The report said authoritarian regimes and rulers continue to tighten control over what their populations see, hear and say.

While mentioning Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the report singles out China’s government for “exerting ultimate authority over the identities, information and opinions” of hundreds of millions of people.  

The annual report examines freedom of expression across 161 countries using 25 indicators to measure how free each person is to express, communicate and participate in society, without fear of harassment, legal repercussions or violence. It creates a score from zero to 100 for each country.

This year, the report ranks Denmark and Switzerland tops in the world, each with scores of 96. Norway and Sweden each have scores of 94, and Estonia and Finland both scored 93. The study said the top 10 most open nations are European.

Article 19 ranks North Korea as the most oppressive nation in the world with a score of zero. Eritrea, Syria and Turkmenistan had scores of one, and Belarus, China and Cuba had scores of two.   

The United States ranked 30th on the scale. In 2011, it was 9th in the world. The U.S. has seen a nine-point drop in its score, putting the country on the lower end of the open expression category. It was globally ranked in the lowest quartile in 2021 in its scores for equality in civil liberties for social groups, political polarization and social polarization, and political violence.

The report said that over the past two decades, there have been more dramatic downward shifts in freedom of expression around the world than at any time. Many of these occur as the result of power grabs or coups, but many more nations have seen an erosion of rights, often under democratically elected populist leaders.

Article 19 takes its name from the article under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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«Живий-здоровий» депутат Ковальов розповів російським ЗМІ про замах на себе на окупованій Херсонщині

На відео колишній «слуга народу» перебуває у приміщенні, що виглядає як лікарняна палата, та має забинтовану праву руку

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144 Ukraine Fighters Freed from Russian Captivity in Prisoner Exchange

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that 144 of the country’s fighters were freed from Russian captivity via “an exchange mechanism” and that nearly 100 of the freed fighters had participated in the defense of the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol.

Earlier, a leading Ukrainian parliamentarian told VOA that Kyiv and Moscow were undergoing a process of prisoner exchange and that Roman Abramovich, a Russian businessman with ties to Putin, was playing “an active role” in the talks.

 

Hours later, in his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the development “optimistic and very important.” Zelenskyy said 59 of the soldiers that returned to Ukraine were members of the National Guard, followed by 30 servicemen with the Navy, 28 who had served in the Army, 17 with Border Guards and 9 who fought as territorial defense soldiers and one had been a policeman.

“The oldest of the liberated is 65 years old, the youngest is 19,” he said in the video broadcast. “In particular,” Zelenskyy added, “95 Azovstal defenders return[ed] home.”

The defense of Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol stood out as a particularly fierce struggle between Ukrainian and Russian forces from March to May. It ended with an unknown number of casualties on Ukraine’s side and close to 2,500 Ukrainian fighters in Russian captivity, according to figures released by the Russian side.

Wednesday’s news came on the heels of an announcement a day earlier that 17 Ukrainians, including 16 servicemen and one civilian, were freed from Russian captivity in an exchange that saw 15 Russians released and that the bodies of 46 fallen Ukrainian soldiers returned home. In return, Ukraine handed Russia 40 of their fallen servicemen. Among the 46 fallen Ukrainian fighters, 21 took part in the defense of Azovstal, according to the Ukrainian government.

David Arakhamia, leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Ukrainian parliament, told VOA during a visit to Washington earlier this month that Abramovich was playing “an active role” in prisoner exchange talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

“As a human being, I think he has [the] intention to stop the war, he doesn’t like the idea that Russia invaded Ukraine,” Arakhamia said of Abramovich.

As negotiations are concerned, “He’s trying to play the neutral role, but for us, we treat him as a Russian representative. He’s closer to Mr. Putin [than to the Ukrainian side], of course,” Arakhamia said, adding that Ukraine sees Abramovich as a “messenger” who could deliver messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin “in their original form.”

Abramovich was the owner of the British football club, Chelsea. He made arrangements for its sale in the aftermath of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions put in place by Britain, the United States and other western nations against Russian businessmen believed to have benefited from close ties with the Russian government and Putin.

On Wednesday, Zelenskyy concluded his nightly address to the nation by thanking those who played a part in securing the return home of 144 Ukrainian fighters from Russian captivity.

“I am grateful to the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine and to everyone who worked for this result. But let’s talk about this later. We will do everything to bring every Ukrainian man and woman home,” Zelenskyy said.

As the war enters the fifth month, the exact number of prisoners held by each side has not been made public. Little is known about how they are treated or precisely where they’re held.

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US, NATO Trade Charges With China Over New Strategic Concept   

The United States joined its NATO allies on Wednesday to issue a strong rebuke to “malicious hybrid and cyber” threats from the People’s Republic of China, warning the “no-limits” partnership between China and Russia is undercutting a rules-based international order.

In Beijing, Chinese officials pushed back and asked the Atlantic alliance to stop “stoking political confrontation or seeking to start a new Cold War.”

On Wednesday in Madrid, where NATO leaders are meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “there are aspects increasingly where we [the U.S. and NATO] have to contest what China is doing. And one of the things that it’s doing is seeking to undermine the rules-based international order.”

The chief U.S. diplomat said Washington is not looking for a conflict with Beijing even as the U.S. and NATO confront the increasing challenges imposed by China, including cybersecurity.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused China of “spreading Russian lies and disinformation” at a press conference in Madrid, where the Atlantic alliance unveiled its “Strategic Concept” that features China for the first time.

 

“This region, North America and Europe, faces global threats and challenges — that’s cyber, that’s terrorism, but also the security consequences of China, because that has effects on us,” Stoltenberg said.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept warned that “cyberspace is contested at all times” with malign actors seeking to degrade the Atlantic alliance’s critical infrastructure, extract intelligence, steal intellectual property and impede the alliance’s military activities.

“The People’s Republic of China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. … The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. … It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains,” said NATO in the organization’s most important working document.

U.S. officials have questioned China’s claim of neutrality since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, accusing Beijing of using its state-controlled information toolbox to amplify Russian false claims about the war.

Chinese officials say they are making “independent assessments based on the historical context” as the military conflict in Ukraine enters its fifth month.

Ties to Ukraine, support for Russia

China maintains a strategic partnership with Ukraine and says Beijing respects Kyiv’s territorial and sovereign integrity. But China also supports Russia’s supposed security concerns and has been opposing Western sanctions against Moscow.

Personal rapport between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been on display as Beijing repeatedly asserts rhetorical support of Moscow.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned NATO to stay out of the Asia-Pacific region.

“Some NATO member states keep sending aircraft and warships to carry out military exercises in China’s nearby waters, creating tensions and fanning up disputes,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry. Zhao said the Atlantic alliance “should discard the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mindset and stop making enemies.”

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US, Iran Indirect Talks to Revive 2015 Nuclear Pact End Without Progress

Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse about how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact have ended without the progress “the EU team as coordinator had hoped-for,” EU’s envoy Enrique Mora tweeted Wednesday.

“We will keep working with even greater urgency to bring back on track a key deal for non-proliferation and regional stability,” Mora said.

The talks began Tuesday with Mora as the coordinator, shuttling between Iran’s Ali Bagheri Kani and Washington’s special Iran envoy Rob Malley.

“What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran’s economic benefits,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the pact in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy. A year later, Tehran reacted by gradually breaching the nuclear limits of the deal.

More than 11 months of talks between Tehran and major powers to revive their nuclear deal stalled in March, chiefly over Tehran’s insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), its elite security force, from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list.

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