Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.



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From allies to uncertainty: Lithuania’s Belarusian exile dilemma

“Putin and Lukashenko want the old Iron Curtain between Belarus and Europe,” one politician told Euronews, warning against imposing restrictions on Belarusian citizens.

Belarusian friends could be turning to foes in Lithuania.

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Like neighbouring Poland, the small Baltic country has welcomed tens of thousands of Belarusian exiles since Minsk viciously cracked down on a 2020 protest movement. 

But Russia’s war in Ukraine changed everything.

It amplified fears in some quarters that citizens of Belarus, a staunch ally of Russia, could pose a security risk to Lithuania, leading the country’s lawmakers to consider banning visa and residency permits for Belarusians. 

Throw into the mix the arrival of thousands of Russian Wagner mercenaries into Belarus in July and some worriers have gone into overdrive.

“We understand the security risks posed by [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko’s regime of a possible infiltration with agents to Poland and Lithuania and there is no simple solution here. But we also know the policy of blanket bans doesn’t work,” Franak Viačorka, a Belarusian opposition politician, told Euronews. 

“The secret services of Russia and Lukashenko will just find any other way.”

Viačorka was also afraid of the “symbolic consequences” any clampdown could have, potentially aiding those in power in Moscow and Minsk.

“Putin and Lukashenko want the old Iron Curtin between Belarus and Europe… because it will help fix Russian control over Belarus. They want to isolate Belarusians, leaving them with no connections to the outside world.”

“Then the regime can commit atrocities with impunity. People will stand alone against its terror.”

He claimed “propaganda” TV channels in Belarus have already jumped upon Lithuania’s possible restrictions on Belarusian nationals, calling it “exactly” what the regime wants. 

Between 2020 and 2021, Belarusian security forces crushed massive anti-government protests, sparked by Lukashenko’s re-election, which was considered rigged by the international community, including the EU

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More than 35,000 people were arbitrarily detained during that period, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many experienced violence, threats, ill-treatment and inhumane detention conditions. 

Belarusian authorities have since escalated smear campaigns and prosecutions against political and civic activists, journalists and human rights defenders on trumped-up charges, as per a Human Rights Watch report

Yet, Belarusian exiles – numbering around 58,000 inside Lithuania, according to data cited by AP – have become an increasingly thorny issue, as relations between Vilnius and Belarus have soured. 

Not only has Minsk funnelled irregular migrants into both Lithuania and Poland, which have been called a form of hybrid war, but Vilnius also holds Russia and Belarus equally responsible for the invasion of Ukraine.

Security concerns have inevitably risen. Bordering the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Lithuania was once part of the USSR and now feels threatened by a revisionist Russia, backed by Belarus.

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In March, Lithuania’s parliament put forward a bill banning Belarusian and Russian nationals from obtaining Lithuanian citizenship, owning property, applying for visas or extending their residence permits. 

It was eventually watered down, with more controversial provisions dropped, but now lawmakers may again consider imposing visa and residence permit bans for Belarusians. A vote is expected in September.

“We will be grateful to Lithuania no matter what,” said opposition politician Viačorka.

“We see Lithuania as one of the closest countries to us. [More restrictive policies] could harm all the good things the country has done over the years for Belarusians. It is important not to spoil all that relationship capital we have built with fast decisions.”

‘Prisoners in Belarus’

While he recognised “some threat”, Lithuanian Labour MP Andrius Mazuronis said slapping restrictions on Belarusians would “make huge problems”.

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Many exiles are young, highly educated individuals, “who share our values and see the situation in Ukraine in exactly the same way as we do,” he said. “The regime in Belarus will change…  and people with a Western mind will be able come back and recreate their country as a normal, European-orientated state.”

“That’s why we need to host these people in the medium to long term.”

And it’s not only the Belarusian opposition that benefits.

Lithuania has felt a “positive” impact, with Belarusian professionals playing an important role in the country’s burgeoning tech and IT sectors, plus many companies have relocated from Belarus, according to Mazuronis.

“Belarusians have settled down here and integrated into our society,” he told Euronews. “If we would close the border, I think our economy would face some serious challenges.”

Careful background checks by Lithuania’s migration and intelligence services could mitigate many security issues, Mazuronis said, suggesting lawmakers should make them stronger and deeper. 

He noted nearly 1,000 Belarusian citizens had been refused entry on security grounds, showing the Migration Department was doing an “important and impressive” job.

Still, Mazuronis aired a note of caution, amid fears Wagner mercenaries in Belarus may stage a provocation on NATO’s borders.

“Society feels threatened because they still remember how fast things can develop. We saw it with Ukraine. Lithuanian officials had talked about it [the threat of Russia] for many years – unfortunately, no one in Western capitals was listening,” he said. 

Authorities have recently sent questionnaires to Russians and Belarusians living in Lithuania aimed at proving their loyalty, asking questions about who rightfully owns Crimea and their views towards the war.

For Viačorka, such policies mistakenly equated the two. 

“Belarusians are not Russian,” he told Euronews. “It is helping Lukashenko’s propaganda: They want to make Belarusians perceived the same as Russia.”

“It is simply not true”.

Polling by independent Belarusian sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky found only 11% of his compatriots were in favour of Belarus participating in the fighting in Ukraine, whereas in Russia attitudes towards the war are more unclear. 

Meanwhile, two-thirds of those surveyed are against Russia’s use of Belarus as a staging point for attacking Ukraine. 

“The most important thing in my point of view is the purpose of closing up the border?”, asked Mazuronis.

While he accepted it might send a political message to the Belarusian and Russian regimes, the Labour MP doubted if it would improve Lithuania’s security situation or decrease the possible threat coming from Moscow.

He also invoked history: “We should not forget that after the Second World War, thousands of Lithuanians ran from the Soviet regime. People went desperately. But they were able to eventually come back and build our country from scratch.”

“I am sure that many Belarusians are willing to do exactly the same,” he added.



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Putin’s media machine turns on ‘traitor’ Prigozhin

From national hero to drug-addled, bewigged zero: the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has turned against Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In a sensational report on state-run Rossiya-1’s “60 Minutes” program on Wednesday evening, the Kremlin’s propaganda attack dogs played footage of what they claimed was a raid of Prigozhin’s mansion and offices, showing cash, guns, drugs, a helicopter, multiple (Russian) passports — and a closet full of terrible wigs.

“The investigation is continuing,” said pundit Eduard Petrov at the top of the program, referring to the probe into the mutiny led by Prigozhin last month, during which the leader of the Wagner Group of mercenaries marched his men to within 200 kilometers of Moscow in a bid to oust the country’s military leadership. “In reality, no one planned to close this case,” he added.

It was an open declaration of war on Prigozhin, and came after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides issued improbable assurances that the criminal case into those who had organized the mutiny would be dropped if the warlord and his Wagnerites agreed to either disarm, sign contracts with the Russian defense ministry, or leave for Belarus. On Thursday morning, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who ostensibly negotiated the exile agreement with Prigozhin and Putin, told state media the warlord was not in the country.

“We need to figure out who was on whose side,” Petrov pronounced on “60 Minutes.” “Who was on the mutineers’ side? They should be punished and brought to criminal justice. So the nation understands that if a person acts against their government, they will be punished very, very harshly. Not ‘see you later, I’m going out.’”

“Tomes” of evidence is being combed over by Russian authorities, a gloating Petrov told the audience of the evening show. “Very soon, very very soon, we will hear what stage the criminal case is at.”

Cue: Footage — obtained from unnamed siloviki (a term used to describe members of the military or security services) — of Russia’s special forces raiding what Petrov described as Prigozhin’s “nest” — aka the offices of his now-shuttered Patriot Media company, and his palatial home.

“I believe the image of Yevgeny Prigozhin as a champion of the people was entirely created by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s well-fed media empire,” Petrov said contemptuously and seemingly unironically — never mind that Rossiya-1 itself portrayed Prigozhin as a hero mere weeks ago.

Remaking a murder

Until recently, the Kremlin’s propagandists painted Prigozhin, a 62-year-old one-time caterer and convicted felon, as a macho hero, a Russian Rambo decapitating traitors with sledgehammers on the front line.

Things got complicated when Prigozhin began publicly railing against Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, ranting and raging to his growing cadre of devoted fans on social media.

Still, Prigozhin never criticized Putin, and Putin allowed Prigozhin to continue building his brand, so long as his men kept holding down the fort in the most brutal battles in the war on Ukraine. Then Prigozhin crossed the line by marching his men on Moscow.

Putin’s retribution was always going to be brutal — first, though, he’s destroying Prigozhin’s image and undermining his reputation.

Back to Wednesday night’s “60 Minutes.”

“Why did we forget about Prigozhin’s past?” an impassioned Petrov asked. “Everyone knew about it. Everyone talked about it. Spoke about the fact that he has been on trial twice. His criminal past.”

Showing footage of what he said was Prigozhin’s 600 million ruble (€6 million) mansion, Petrov crowed: “Let’s see how this champion of the truth lived — a twice-convicted champion — a champion who spoke about how everyone around him is stealing.

“Inside Yevgeny Prigozhin’s little house there’s currency lying around like this, in a box, held together by rubber bands,” Petrov continued. “Now let’s see the palace of the fighter of corruption and criminality, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Here’s his palace. Here’s his house. His daughter sometimes posts videos from here, by the way — and she’s not always in good condition.”

Then, the pièce de résistance of the video: a closet full of bad wigs.

“Oh!” exclaimed Petrov as the footage rolled. “This is a closet full of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s secrets — wigs! Why does he need wigs at his house?”

It wasn’t long until Telegram, the social media platform popular among Russians, was flooded with photos of Prigozhin in a variety of wigs and disguises. (Though intriguingly, the photos appeared to come from a Prigozhin-friendly account called “Release the Kraken,” which said it had sourced them from the Patriot Media archive.)

The program also aired footage of what Petrov speculated were drugs found in Prigozhin’s mansion. A Prigozhin-friendly Telegram account which has previously featured voice messages from the warlord himself denied the house in the video belonged to Prigozhin, and claimed the “drugs” were actually laundry detergent.

Divide and conquer

Wednesday night’s program was also designed to reassure Russians that not all Wagner fighters were traitors and mutineers — with his war effort stuttering, Putin can’t afford to lose tens of thousands of men from the front.

“There were worthy people in Wagner,” Petrov insisted — moments after a diatribe about Prigozhin recruiting some of Russia’s worst criminals into the mercenary army’s ranks.

“The majority!” cut in “60 Minutes” host Yevgeny Popov. “The majority of people acted heroically, took cities, served in good faith … and bought their freedom with blood.”

“What’s absolutely clear: Prigozhin is a traitor,” Popov continued. “But Wagnerites — the majority of them are heroic people who with guns in hand defended our motherland. And many of them were lied to.”

Referring to Prigozhin’s Concord catering company and other businesses that Putin admitted were fully funded by the Russian state, Popov said the warlord had received “billions in contracts.”

And seeking to cleave Prigozhin’s men from their exiled boss, Petrov said: “The question is whether this money reached the fighters and heroes of Wagner!”

Translation: Watch your back, Yevgeny.



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Prigozhin’s mutiny, Putin’s mess: how Lukashenko came out looking like a ‘tactical winner’

The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking credit for stepping in to broker Wagner’s retreat and saving Russia from chaos. FRANCE 24 spoke to Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat, who shed light on what this means for Lukasheko’s relationship with Moscow, his own security and the course of the war in Ukraine.  

On June 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced the most serious challenge to his power in his 23-year-long rule. Surprisingly, the challenge came from within his regime, when the famously volatile Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin seized control of the headquarters of the Russian Southern Military Distrinct in Rostov-on-Don, advanced on Moscow and shot down military aircraft along the way.

As Russia teetered on the brink of civil war, Prigozhin suddenly made a U-turn when his men were just over 200 km from Moscow. A deal was clinched to allow Prigozhin and some of his fighters to go to Belarus.

FRANCE 24: What will the presence of Prigozhin and the Wagner group in Belarus mean for Lukashenko’s regime?

Pavel Slunkin: The main point is that we do not know if the Wagner Group will be in Belarus. We also do not know what their status might be, and what they will be doing there. We do know Lukashenko met with Prigozhin in Minsk after Prigozhin’s plane landed in Belarus on Tuesday.

There are contradictory interests between Yevgeny Prigozhin, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin wants to maintain control over Wagner as an autonomous and independent entity but Lukashenko wants to avoid this because he knows Wagner troops can turn against him, the same way they turned against Putin this weekend.

Yet converging interests exist as well: The Belarusian leader has said his own army could benefit from the experience of Wagner troops. Both Lukashenko and Prigozhin would also agree to register Wagner in Belarus. Before, Wagner was operating as a de facto branch of the Russian army even though Russian law labels private militaries as illegal. 

Finally, Lukashenko can use the Wagner soldiers to defend himself. The Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment is a group of Belarusian opposition volunteers, which have been fighting in Ukraine on Kyiv’s side. They have claimed that once they liberate Ukraine from Russian occupation, they intend to liberate Belarus from Lukashenko’s rule.  

FRANCE 24: Putin has used various means in the past to eliminate his opponents. Is Prigozhin safe in Belarus after the rebellion he led this weekend?  

Pavel Slunkin: Putin was humiliated last weekend when he was in the worst position he ever was during his rule. No matter how many promises Lukashenko gives Prigozhin about his security, his long-term security is not guaranteed.

Russian services felt they could operate on Belarusian territory even before 2020, [after mass demonstrations broke out throughout Belarus and the Kremlin responded with logistical assistance, editor’s note]. If Putin asked Lukashenko for help, I am sure Lukashenko would offer it.

FRANCE 24: What has been the reaction of the Belarusian public and the state media to the deal mediated by Lukashenko?

Pavel Slunkin: It is very hard to know what people think because independent media does not exist in Belarus. Police check people’s mobile phones on the street, at work, at border controls. If they find that people subscribe to media outlets or certain Telegram channels, labelled as “extremist” by the government, they can go to prison.

The website Zerkalo.io (Mirror) recently held a poll asking people what they think about Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus. The responses showed people are desperate and frustrated about their country being drawn into Russia’s war in Ukraine. They are angry about Russia stationing nuclear warheads in their country and war criminals hosted on national territory.

FRANCE 24: Many experts have said that Belarus is becoming a vassal state of Russia. Could the recent events strengthen Lukashenko’s position as a statesman?

Pavel Slunkin: In all of this, Lukashenko looks like a tactical winner and Putin looks weakened, which is something extraordinary. Prigozhin put everything on the table, he took all possible risks and now he has nowhere to go.

Lukashenko did a service for his boss in Moscow, but by saving Putin, he also saved himself. The Belarusian president showed Western diplomats he could negotiate with Putin, proving he has some autonomy left.

This does not change the fact that Lukashenko remains highly dependent on Russia: 70% of Belarus’s exports are sent to Russia and 90% of Belarusian exports depend on Russian infrastructure. Russia has agreed to sell its gas to Belarus at the lowest prices in the world. Belarus is fundamentally dependent on Russia and this trajectory will continue. No amount of mediation skills can change that.  

FRANCE 24: The relationship between Putin and Lukashenko is well established, but how do you evaluate Prigozhin and Lukashenko’s relationship?

Pavel Slunkin: Lukashenko says he has known Prigozhin personally for 20 years but I would not trust this. Independent journalists, labelled as “extremist” by the Belarusian regime, found that Lukashenko first met Prigozhin in Saint Petersburg in 2002, when Prigozhin was serving state leaders at a dinner.

Lukashenko might try to exaggerate the closeness of his relationship with Prigozhin but the fact is that he did not even have his phone number last weekend during the mutiny. The Belarusians found Prigozhin’s phone number through the FSB [Russian security services, editor’s note].

FRANCE 24: How dangerous for Ukraine and NATO is the presence of Wagner troops in Belarus?

Pavel Slunkin: I do not think the Wagner group will really pose a threat to NATO, and we can imagine Belarus already has troops stationed along the border with Ukraine. If we look at it rationally, Wagner is divided now. One part will join the Russian army, another part will return to civilian life and the last part will continue serving Wagner, but in Belarus; 25,000 soldiers split into three, what does this offer in terms of military might?

If you look back to February 2022, even with the large number of Russian soldiers who tried to capture Kyiv from Belarus, they failed. Ukraine was weak at the time but now they have drones, landmines along the border with Belarus and weapons coming from the West. Wagner would need many more people than the Russian army had a year ago if they were to attack Ukraine.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin moved to Belarus; Russia won’t press charges for mutiny

Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private army of prison recruits and other mercenaries who have fought some of the deadliest battles in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, escaped prosecution for his abortive armed rebellion against the Kremlin and arrived Tuesday in Belarus.

The exile of the 62-year-old owner of the Wagner Group was part of a deal that ended the short-lived mutiny in Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed Prigozhin was in Belarus, and said he and some of his troops were welcome to stay “for some time” at their own expense.

Prigozhin has not been seen since Saturday, when he waved to well-wishers from a vehicle in the southern city of Rostov. He issued a defiant audio statement on Monday. And on Tuesday morning, a private jet believed to belong to him flew from Rostov to an air base southwest of the Belarusian capital of Minsk, according to data from FlightRadar24.

Meanwhile, Moscow said preparations were underway for Wagner’s troops fighting in Ukraine, who numbered 25,000 according to Prigozhin, to hand over their heavy weapons to Russia’s military. Prigozhin had said such moves were being taken ahead of a July 1 deadline for his fighters to sign contracts — which he opposed — with Russia’s military command.

Russian authorities also said Tuesday they have closed a criminal investigation into the uprising and are pressing no armed rebellion charge against Prigozhin or his followers.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to set the stage for financial wrongdoing charges against an affiliated organization Prigozhin owns. Putin told a military gathering that Prigozhin’s Concord Group earned 80 billion rubles ($941 million) from a contract to provide the military with food, and that Wagner had received over 86 billion rubles (over $1 billion) in the past year for wages and additional items.

Also read | Rebellion in Russia: on the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company

“I hope that while doing so they didn’t steal anything, or stole not so much,” Putin said, adding that authorities would look closely at Concord’s contract.

For years, Prigozhin has enjoyed lucrative catering contracts with the Russian government. Police who searched his St. Petersburg office on Saturday said they found 4 billion rubles ($48 million) in trucks outside, according to media reports the Wagner boss confirmed. He said the money was intended to pay soldiers’ families.

Prigozhin and his fighters stopped the revolt on Saturday, less than 24 hours after it began and shortly after Putin spoke on national TV, branding the leaders of the rebellion, whom he did not name, as traitors.

The charge of mounting an armed mutiny could have been punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Prigozhin’s escape from prosecution is i n stark contrast to Moscow’s treatment of its critics, including those staging anti-government protests in Russia, where many opposition figures have been punished with long sentences in notoriously harsh penal colonies.

Lukashenko said some of the Wagner fighters are now in the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed last September.

The series of stunning events in recent days constitutes the gravest threat so far to Putin’s grip on power amid the 16-month-old war in Ukraine, and he again acknowledged the threat Tuesday in saying the result could have been a civil war.

In addresses this week, Putin has sought to project stability and demonstrate authority.

In a Kremlin ceremony Tuesday, the president walked down the red-carpeted stairs of the 15th century white-stone Palace of Facets to address soldiers and law enforcement officers, thanking them for their actions to avert the rebellion.

In a further show of business-as-usual, Russian media showed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in his military uniform, greeting Cuba’s visiting defense minister in a pomp-heavy ceremony. Prigozhin has said his goal had been to oust Shoigu and other military brass, not stage a coup against Putin.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 29 years while relying on Russian subsidies and support, portrayed the uprising as the latest development in the clash between Prigozhin and Shoigu. While the mutiny unfolded, he said, he put Belarus’ armed forces on a combat footing and urged Putin not to be hasty in his response, lest the conflict spiral out of control.

He said he told Prigozhin he would be “squashed like a bug” if he tried to attack Moscow, and warned that the Kremlin would never agree to his demands.

Like Putin, the Belarusian leader portrayed the war in Ukraine as an existential threat, saying, “If Russia collapses, we all will perish under the debris.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not disclose details about the Kremlin’s deal with Prigozhin, saying only that Putin had provided “certain guarantees” aimed at avoiding a “worst-case scenario.”

Asked why the rebels were allowed to get as close as about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from Moscow without facing serious resistance, National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov told reporters, “We concentrated our forces in one fist closer to Moscow. If we spread them thin, they would have come like a knife through butter.”

Zolotov, a former Putin bodyguard, also said the National Guard lacks battle tanks and other heavy weapons and now would get them.

The mercenaries shot down at least six Russian helicopters and a military communications plane as they advanced on Moscow, killing at least a dozen airmen, according to Russian news reports. The Defense Ministry didn’t release information about casualties, but Putin mentioned them Tuesday and honored them with a moment of silence.

“Pilots, our combat comrades, died while confronting the mutiny,” he said. “They didn’t waver and fulfilled the orders and their military duty with dignity.”

Some Russian war bloggers and patriotic activists have vented outrage that Prigozhin and his troops won’t be punished for killing the airmen.

Prigozhin voiced regret for the deaths in his statement Monday, but said Wagner troops fired because the aircraft were bombing them.

In his televised address Monday night, Putin said rebellion organizers had played into the hands of Ukraine’s government and its allies. He praised the rank-and-file mutineers, however, who “didn’t engage in fratricidal bloodshed and stopped on the brink.”

A Washington-based think tank said that was “likely in an effort to retain” the Wagner fighters in Ukraine, where Moscow needs “trained and effective manpower” as it faces a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The Institute for the Study of War also said the break between Putin and Prigozhin is likely beyond repair, and that providing the Wagner chief and his loyalists with Belarus as an apparent safe haven could be a trap.

Putin has offered Prigozhin’s fighters the choice of either coming under Russian military command, leaving service or going to Belarus.

Lukashenko said there is no reason to fear Wagner’s presence in his country, though in Russia, Wagner-recruited convicts have been suspected of violent crimes. The Wagner troops have “priceless” military knowledge and experience to share with Belarus, he said.

But exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in a 2020 election that was widely seen as fraudulent and triggered mass protests, said Wagner troops will threaten the country and its neighbors.

“Belarusians don’t welcome war criminal Prigozhin,” she told The Associated Press. “If Wagner sets up military bases on our territory, it will pose a new threat to our sovereignty and our neighbors.”

While attention focused on the aftermath of the Russian rebellion, the war in Ukraine continued to take a human toll in what U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink called “terrible scenes from another brutal attack.”

Russian forces struck Kramatorsk and a village nearby in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region with missiles, killing three people, including a child, and injuring more two dozen others, with still others under building rubble, authorities reported.

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‘Last French player standing’: Roland Garros crowd adopts Ukraine’s Svitolina

Elina Svitolina’s fairy-tale run at Roland Garros, her first Grand Slam tournament since becoming a mother, has inspired and enthralled a French Open crowd stripped of home players. With war still raging in her home country, she hopes her feats on the Paris clay can bring a little joy to Ukrainians, too.

When Anna Blinkova battled her way into the third round at Roland Garros, ousting the local favourite Caroline Garcia, the young Russian must have thought she had weathered the worst of the French Open’s raucous fans.

The crowd at her next match, however, turned out to be just as partisan.

There were no French players left in the draw by the time Blinkova took on Ukraine’s Svitolina on Court Simonne-Mathieu. But her opponent might as well have been sporting the French tricolour, such was the support she enjoyed.

Svitolina later credited the crowd, which included her husband and local favourite Gaël Monfils, with inspiring her thrilling 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory – her second fightback from a set down at this year’s French Open.

She did much the same two days later after ousting another Russian, the ninth seed Daria Kasatkina, in two hard-fought sets (6-4, 7-6), to the delight of a packed Court Suzanne Lenglen, the tournament’s second showpiece arena.

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina thanks the crowd after her fourth-round win over Daria Kasatkina of Russia. © Benoît Teissier, Reuters

“I’m just thankful to the crowd to be there for me,” said the 28-year-old after the match. “In some matches I was a set down, but they were cheering me on and giving me this push and this hope that I can come back and win.”

She added, smiling: “Last French player standing.”

‘I’m 17 again’

Svitolina’s remarkable run at Roland Garros, just eight months after she gave birth, has provided the fairy tale French fans were craving after the latest dismal campaign by home players.

The host country fielded a total of 28 players in singles this year, none of whom made it past the second round. The debacle came as France marked 40 years since Yannick Noah’s 1983 triumph, the last time a Frenchman won on the Paris clay.

Svitolina got a taste of the French public’s affection in the run-up to Roland Garros, when home support carried her to victory at the Strasbourg Open, where she also defeated Blinkova in the final.

“I already knew from Strasbourg that a lot of people supported me,” she said at the French Open on Sunday, before touching on her relationship with Monfils, who gave home fans a night to remember with his thrilling first-round win over Argentina’s Sebastian Baez – only to pull out the next day with a wrist injury.

“We have been married for a couple of years now. I’ve been with Gaël for over five years. I didn’t expect that it would come like this year,” Svitolina said, referring to her surge in popularity among local fans.

Gaël Monfils, the showman of French tennis, has been a courtside presence throughout Svitolina's French Open campaign.
Gaël Monfils, the showman of French tennis, has been a courtside presence throughout Svitolina’s French Open campaign. © Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24

With 17 titles to her name, Svitolina was long tipped as a future Grand Slam title winner, though semi-final appearances at Wimbledon and the US Open, both in 2019, are the closest she has come.

A former world number three, the Odesa native is now ranked at a lowly 192, owing to the lengthy break she took from tennis, citing health problems and mental exhaustion over Russia’s invasion, followed by her maternity leave.

Reflecting on her fourth quarter-final appearance at Roland Garros, she said she was playing with the freedom of a teenager in her latest quest to break her Grand Slam duck.

“Right now, I don’t have that pressure that I used to have before,” she told reporters on Sunday, noting that expectations were low when she entered the tournament.

“I feel almost like I’m 17 again coming on the tour fresh,” she added. “I’m not defending any points. Not here, not next week. Yeah, I feel like more free.”

In the shadow of war

While Svitolina’s tennis comeback has captured imaginations in France, so has her activism in support of her war-torn home country, whose plight has been a recurrent subject of conversation – and controversy – at Roland Garros.

When asked what motivated her to return to the WTA Tour in April, Svitolina said she hoped to “bring moments of joy” to the people of Ukraine and the children in particular.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion last year, Svitolina has been at the forefront of charitable campaigns to help Ukraine. She donated her prize money from the Strasbourg win to charities helping Ukrainian children and has promised to do the same with her earnings from the French Open.

After her first-round win on Monday, Svitolina blasted the “empty words” being spoken about the war, calling for the conversation to focus on the suffering of Ukrainians and how the tennis world can provide concrete help.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands,” she said. “We are missing the main point that people at this time need help as never before. The kids are losing their parents, they are losing parts of their bodies.”

>> Read more: At French Open, Ukraine war shatters myth of sport as an apolitical bubble

Like her fellow Ukrainians at Roland Garros, she has refused to shake hands with players from Russia and Belarus, pointing to the optics of exchanging courtesies at the net at a time when Russian bombs are raining down on Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

She did, however, exchange a thumbs-up with her opponent on Sunday, the most outspoken Russian player since the invasion of Ukraine, thanking Kasatkina for her words of support for Ukraine and describing her as “really brave”.

Next up for Svitolina is Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the world number two, who has faced tough questioning over her stance on the war in Ukraine.
Next up for Svitolina is Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the world number two, who has faced tough questioning over her stance on the war in Ukraine. © Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24

Svitolina will be the underdog on Tuesday when she faces Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the world number two, in a politically charged battle for the semi-finals.

The Australian Open champion has found the press rooms at Roland Garros harder to manage than the clay courts, facing tough questioning over her individual stance on the war and her opinion of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, whose country served as a platform for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As a result, she has refused to honour her media commitments following her last two wins, claiming she does not “feel safe” in the press rooms.

Sabalenka is likely to face a partisan crowd on Court Philippe-Chatrier, the French Open’s centre court, when she takes on the “last French player standing”. Whatever the outcome, Svitolina has already warned there will be no handshake at the net.

“I have played the last two matches against Russian players so it will not change, everything will be the same,” she said. “I’m used to it now; it’s going to be the same.”

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At French Open, Ukraine war shatters myth of sport as an apolitical bubble

From the war raging in Ukraine to the unrest in Kosovo, geopolitical crises have cast a pall over the Grand Slam tournament in Paris, challenging conventions and shattering the notion that sport and politics can be kept apart.

For the second year running, sport’s troubled relationship with politics has been a fiercely divisive subject at Roland Garros, heightening scrutiny of players’ behaviour on and off the court, as well as fans’ reactions from the stands.

Fifteen months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war raging at the other end of the continent has been a recurrent topic of discussion, sparking press-room incidents, courtside jeers and talk of a poisonous atmosphere in the dressing room.

With Ukrainian players largely absent from the men’s game, the tension has centred mainly on the women’s draw, where top-ranking players from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus regularly cross paths in an increasingly strained cohabitation.

Their often dramatic confrontations have challenged tennis conventions, including the cherished values of sportsmanship and fair play. This has led to paradoxical situations in the stands, with the French Open’s notoriously fickle fans successively cheering on Ukrainian players against their Russian and Belarusian opponents – and then booing them for shirking a handshake.

“We’re witnessing a collision between two realities: the reality of sport, with its values of tolerance and sportsmanship, and the reality of war,” said Lukas Aubin, an expert in the geopolitics of sport at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IRIS).

“Sports’ various governing bodies like to think that sport is inherently apolitical,” he added. “But in truth the two are increasingly inseparable.”

A model for other sports?

Contrary to many other sports, the WTA and ATP, which govern female and male tennis respectively, have resisted calls to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions, requiring them to compete as “neutrals” instead, with neither flag nor anthem.

“Tennis is a particular case, in that it has been more tolerant of Russian and Belarusian players since the start of the war – with the sole exception of Wimbledon,” said Aubin.

The British Grand Slam was stripped of its ranking points last year, and fined $1 million, over its decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus. It has renounced the ban this year, though players from the two countries will have to sign a declaration of neutrality in order to compete at the All England Club.

When stepping on the courts at Roland Garros, players from the two countries are introduced without a mention of their nationalities. On the scoreboards, their names appear without the customary three letters indicating the country of origin – an omission Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus said made her feel like she “comes from nowhere”.

 

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus celebrates after winning her third-round match at the French Open on June 2, 2023. © Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24

 

It’s a model that the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach would like to reproduce across all sports, in time for next summer’s Paris Olympics. Defending plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in international competitions, Bach raised eyebrows in late March by citing tennis as an example of successful cohabitation between players from the three countries.

“The IOC is looking for a solution but hasn’t found a good one yet,” said Aubin. “There’s a form of hypocrisy in showcasing tennis as a ‘model’, when it’s obvious that confrontations between Ukrainian players and those from Russia and Belarus are increasingly politicised.”

Asked about Bach’s comments on the eve of the French Open, defending champion Iga Swiatek of Poland spoke of “tensions between players” and a “heavy atmosphere in the dressing room”. In an interview with French daily Le Monde, she also lamented a “lack of leadership from tennis authorities” on the issue.

“We weren’t brought together to explain how we were supposed to manage this complex situation and how we should behave,” said the world number one, who has been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine. “The Ukrainian players are in the worst position, and it would be good if more attention were paid to how they feel and what they are going through.”

The anguish experienced by Ukrainian players was on full display at Indian Wells earlier this year when 34-year-old Lesia Tsurenko, a veteran of the game, pulled out of her match against Sabalenka citing a “panic attack”.

“It’s an ethical conflict every time we have to play against them (Russian and Belarusian players),” Tsurenko told the Ukrainian website Big Tennis. She said she had been shocked by a discussion she had with WTA chief Steve Simon days before, adding: “He told me he was against the war, but that if players from Russia or Belarus supported the war it was their opinion, and I should not let it upset me.”

‘If Ukrainians hate me, what can I do?’

Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion and world number two, has spoken about the “hate” she encounters in the locker room amid strained relations between players over the war. Last month she said she feared the feeling would only increase after she was publicly praised in a speech by Belarus’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko, whose country has served as a platform for the invasion of Ukraine.

“If Ukrainians will hate me more after his speech, then what can I do? If they feel better by hating me, I’m happy to help them with that,” she said at the time, in remarks that did little to endear her to her Ukrainian adversaries.

On the opening day of the French Open, Sabalenka described her first-round clash with Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine as “emotionally tough” – largely because of the context of the war. “You’re playing against a Ukrainian and you never know what’s going to happen. You never know how people will (react),” she said.  “I was worried, like, people will be against me, and I don’t like to play when people (are) so much against me.

The French Open crowd duly rallied behind Kostyuk during the match, only to boo and whistle at her after she refused to shake hands with her opponent. There was more drama soon after, when the subject of the war came to dominate the players’ press conferences.

>> Read more: ‘They should be embarrassed’: Ukraine’s Kostyuk calls out French Open crowd after boos

In a tense exchange, a journalist from Ukraine pressed Sabalenka to be more specific about her stance on the war, noting that she could soon overtake Swiatek as the world number one and become a role model to many.

“I said it many, many times: nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody,” Sabalenka said. “If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could like stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”

The same reporter pressed her again after her second-round win, challenging her to “personally” state her opposition to the war. The journalist also accused Sabalenka of supporting the “dictator” Lukashenko, until a moderator cut her off mid-question.

When Sabalenka won her third match two days later, the No 2 seed skipped the press conference altogether, saying she had felt “unsafe” at her previous presser and citing the need to preserve her “mental health”.

While all four Grand Slams have rounded on Japan’s Naomi Osaka in the past for skipping press conferences on similar grounds, French Open officials backed Sabalenka, in a measure of how much the war has challenged conventions.

Challenging dictators

Ukrainian players have repeatedly called for players from the aggressor countries to be banned from tournaments. They have made no secret of why they refuse to shake hands with them.

After walking off the court under a chorus of boos, Kostyuk said the French Open crowd “should be embarrassed” about its conduct. Her compatriot Elina Svitolina, the former world number three, pointed to the optics of exchanging courtesies with Russian players at a time when Russian bombs are raining down on Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Ukraine's Marta Kostyuk reacts after her defeat against the No 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk reacts after her defeat against the No 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. © Thomas Samson, AFP

“Can you imagine the guy or a girl who is right now in the front line, looking at me and I’m acting like nothing is happening,” she told a press conference at Roland-Garros. “I’m representing my country. I have a voice. I’m standing with Ukraine. What the Russian government, Russian soldiers are doing on our land is really, really terrible.” 

Like other Ukrainian players, Svitolina had a different stance regarding her fourth-round opponent on Sunday, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, who has refused to return to her home country since publicly speaking out against the war.

Kasatkina has expressed support for Ukrainian players’ stance on shaking hands. She has also backed a decision by British tennis authorities to provide all Ukrainian players with hotel rooms throughout the forthcoming grass court season peaking at Wimbledon.

“I’m thankful to Dasha (Kasatkina) for taking this position. That’s what you expect from others, as well. It’s really brave from her,” Svitolina said of her Russian opponent, with whom she exchanged a thumbs-up after their fourth-round clash on Sunday. No such niceties are expected on Tuesday when Svitolina takes on Sabalenka in a politically charged quarter-final.

Kasatkina, who trains in Barcelona, has faced further criticism in her home country for coming out as gay and challenging Russian attitudes towards homosexuality. Her outspokenness means she is now unable to travel home safely, “at least until a change of regime”, said Aubin, the IRIS expert, flagging the cost of being a dissident athlete.

“Players are potentially at risk if they speak out against certain regimes, particularly in Belarus, where Lukashenko uses sport as a political platform,” he explained. “It is very difficult to oppose such regimes. Those who do so generally don’t go back.”

That argument has failed to impress the likes of Kostyuk, who bristled after her defeat to Sabalenka when a reporter suggested the Belarusian player was caught between a rock and a hard place.

“I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation for her,” said Kostyuk, who had previously recounted her sleepless night following reports of the latest Russian strikes on her hometown, Kyiv. She added: “I go back to Ukraine, where I can die any second from drones or missiles or whatever it is.”

The ongoing row over the war in Ukraine reflects another specificity of tennis, said Aubin, stressing its international dimension compared to other sports.

“This is a globe-trotter’s sport, in which athletes are seldom in their homes countries and have different experiences from athletes living in, say, the Russian or Belarusian bubble,” he said. “This means the players are both more aware of world affairs and able to see what is going on in their home countries from a different perspective.”

More drama for Djokovic

Many tennis players are also unusually outspoken about their opinions.

Earlier this week, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic kicked off a row at the French Open by scribbling a message about Kosovo on a TV camera lens, a day after NATO peacekeeping soldiers were injured in ethnic clashes in the Balkan state’s northern town of Zvecan, where Djokovic’s father grew up.

“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” the 22-time Grand Slam winner wrote in Serbian, before speaking out about the matter at a news conference with reporters from his home country.

That drew a rebuke from France’s Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, who warned Djokovic not to wade into such international issues again at Roland Garros, saying his comments were “not appropriate”.

 

Serbia's Novak Djokovic is no stranger to Grand Slam controversy.
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is no stranger to Grand Slam controversy. © Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24

 

Such controversies are hardly new for Djokovic, who missed the Australian Open and US Open in 2022 because he never received shots of the Covid-19 vaccine. When he returned to Melbourne this year, he faced questions about his father appearing with a group of people waving Russian flags – at least one showing an image of Vladimir Putin – outside the main stadium.

“Drama-free Grand Slam – I don’t think it can happen for me,” Djokovic said Wednesday. “You know, I guess that drives me, as well.”

This time, however, the former world number one received the backing of several fellow players, including Ukraine’s Svitolina, who defended his right to “say his opinion”.

“We are living in the free world, so why not say your opinion on something?” she said. “I feel like if you stand for something, you think that this is the way, you should say.”

Djokovic also avoided punishment from the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which said it had received a request from the Kosovo Tennis Federation demanding that the player be sanctioned over his actions.

“Rules for player conduct at a Grand Slam event are governed by the Grand Slam rulebook, administered by the relevant organiser and regulator. There is no provision in this that prohibits political statements,” an ITF spokesman told AFP.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the matter, the row over Djokovic’s Kosovo comments “proves that sports are indeed politicised and that some causes are more popular and acceptable than others”, said Aubin.

“There is a form of hypocrisy at the heart of sports’ governing bodies, which cling to the idea that politics should stay out of sport,” he said. “Athletes increasingly want to use their voices to support certain causes – and sports need to reconsider the way they approach such issues.”

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Ukraine war: Missile tests, German funding, and Jedi air raid warnings

Moscow: Ukraine has already deployed US long-range GLSDB rockets

The Russian defence ministry said on Tuesday it had shot down a long-range rocket, promised to Ukraine by the US.

“The anti-aircraft defence shot down 18 rockets of the Himars system and a GLSDB guided rocket,” the ministry said in its daily statement, hinting the activity to be the first confirmation that the ammunition had been delivered to Kyiv.

The GLSDBs (for “Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb” in English) are small-diameter, high-precision devices manufactured by the American Boeing and the Swedish Saab. They can fly up to 150 km and thus threaten Russian positions, in particular ammunition warehouses, far behind the front lines.

Ukraine has hammered home the need for such munitions to destroy Russian supply lines and thus overcome its shortage of men and ammunition in preparation for its announced counter-offensive to push back the Russian forces occupying large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine.

The United States finally announced on 3 February that it would provide Ukraine with GLSDBs, but the delivery schedule had not been announced, with some sources saying that several months were needed before they could be deployed on the ground.

The West has been reluctant to provide longer-range systems, fearing they could be used to strike Russian territory and provoke an escalation.

Kyiv, for its part, has repeatedly promised that it would only use them to attack targets in occupied territory.

Russian navy fires missiles in Sea of Japan

Moscow test-fired anti-ship missiles in the Sea of Japan, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday, with two boats launching a simulated missile attack on a mock enemy warship about 100 kilometres away.

The ministry said the target was successfully hit by two Moskit cruise missiles.

The Moskit, whose NATO reporting name is the SS-N-22 Sunburn, is a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile that has conventional and nuclear warhead capacity. The Soviet-built cruise missile is capable of flying at a speed three times the speed of sound and has a range of up to 250 kilometres.

The ministry said the exercise, which included other warships and naval aircraft, took place in the Peter the Great Gulf in the Sea of Japan but did not give more precise coordinates. The gulf borders the Russian Pacific Fleet headquarters at Fokino and is about 700 kilometres from Japan’s northern Hokkaido island.

The Russian military has conducted regular drills across the country and Russian warships have continued maneuvers as the fighting in Ukraine has entered a second year — exercises that were intended to train the troops and showcase the country’s military capability.

The US Navy’s 7th Fleet did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Japan reacted calmly to the missile exercise, which was conducted near Vladivostok, rather than directly into the waters between the two countries.

Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told a news conference later Tuesday that Tokyo will continue to monitor Russia’s military operations, as it has been stepping up activity in the region.

Tokyo does not plan to lodge a protest to Russia over the missile exercise, said Tasuku Matsuki, Japanese Foreign Ministry official in charge of Russia, noting that its location — Peter the Great Bay — is considered Russian coast, though it is facing the water between the two countries.

“On the whole, Japan is concerned about Russia’s increasing military activities around the Japanese coasts and watching them with great interest,” Matsuki said.

He added that Russia has conducted missile drills in that area in the past and issued maritime advisories ahead of time.

Germany to vote on increasing military aid to Ukraine

The Bundestag’s budget committee is due to adopt a significant increase in German military aid to Ukraine on Wednesday.

The parliamentarians are expected to vote on a total of 12 billion euros in aid, both in the form of arms deliveries directly to Kyiv and in the form of re-supplies to the German army, which has offloaded a large part of its stocks to Ukraine over the past year.

If these funds are voted through, German aid will jump from around €3 billion so far to around €15 billion.

The German Finance Ministry will present several proposals to the parliament on Wednesday morning.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Germany has been engaged in an ambitious rearmament policy.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had promised a fund of €100 billion a few days after the Russian attack to boost the German military. But the promised funds have not yet been released and the German army continues to suffer from years of underinvestment.

Berlin, on the other hand, is one of the main contributors to military support in Kyiv. The German government confirmed on Monday the delivery to Ukraine of 18 Leopard 2 type 2A6 tanks, which the Ukrainian army has been insisting on.

Feel the Force: Hamill carries ‘Star Wars’ voice to Ukraine

“Attention. Air raid alert,” the voice says with a Jedi knight’s gravitas. “Proceed to the nearest shelter.”

It’s a surreal moment in an already surreal war: the grave but calming baritone of actor Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars,” urging people to take cover whenever Russia unleashes another aerial bombardment on Ukraine.

The intrusion of Hollywood science-fiction fantasy into the grim daily realities of war in Ukraine is a consequence of Hamill’s decision to lend his famous voice to “Air Alert” — a downloadable app linked to Ukraine’s air defense system. 

When air raid sirens start howling, the app also warns Ukrainians that Russian missiles, bombs and deadly exploding drones may be incoming.

“Don’t be careless,” Hamill’s voice advises. “Your overconfidence is your weakness.”

The actor says he’s admired — from afar, in California — how Ukraine has “shown such resilience … under such terrible circumstances.” Its fight against the Russian invasion, now in its second year, reminds him of the “Star Wars” saga, he says — of plucky rebels battling and ultimately defeating a vast, murderous empire. Voicing over the English-language version of the air-raid app and giving it his “Star Wars” touch was his way of helping out.

When the dangers from the skies pass, Hamill announces via the app that “the air alert is over.” He then signs off with an uplifting: “May the Force be with you.”

Hamill is also raising funds to buy reconnaissance drones for Ukrainian forces on the front lines. He autographed “Star Wars”-themed posters that are being raffled off.

“Here I sit in the comfort of my own home when in Ukraine there are power outages and food shortages and people are really suffering,” he said. “It motivates me to do as much as I can.”

Although the app also has a Ukrainian-language setting, voiced by a woman, some Ukrainians prefer to have Hamill breaking the bad news that yet another Russian bombardment might be imminent.

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‘We will be in danger if Russia wins’: Security concerns drive Poland’s support for Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has conferred a new importance to the Baltic States and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe geographically closest to Russia – particularly Poland. Warsaw is determined to learn from Poland’s own history and help Ukraine win the war.  

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Poland has been living with the consequences: 8 million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Polish territory since last February and the majority of NATO assistance is delivered through Poland, which shares a 535-kilometre-long border with Ukraine. With the prospect of a new Russian spring offensive in Ukraine on everyone’s mind, Poland is acting as if it is preparing for a war.  

If Poland’s support for Ukraine has been seemingly limitless, it comes from a deeply rooted belief that if Russia is not defeated, Poland itself will become a target. Security concerns have led Poland to modernize its army and boost its defence spending to up to 4 percent of its GDP this year, the highest percentage among all NATO countries, according to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.  

“If we don’t support Ukraine now, there will be new targets for [Vladimir] Putin,” said Paweł Jabłoński, the Polish deputy minister for foreign affairs. “A Russian politician recently suggested that Russia should ‘denazify’ six more countries after Ukraine, including Poland. What we do now, we do out of solidarity and in support of the victims.”  

“The opinion throughout Polish society is that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine by claiming territory, whether in Kherson or Zaporizhzhia, there will be the next war, and another after that…,” said Łukasz Jankowski, a political journalist who covers the Polish Parliament. “The feeling is that our basic safety and our independence will be in danger if Russia wins.”  

The threat from Belarus  

Another fear is that Russian troops would combine the territories wrested away from Ukraine and “create a government like the one in Minsk”, said Jankowski. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, an international treaty between Russia and Belarus signed in 1997 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko created the basis for a union between the two former Soviet republics. Both countries maintained their independence but Lukashenko has always supported Russia’s military initiatives without directly taking part in them.  

Should the war in Ukraine drag on, some in Eastern Europe fear Russia could eventually aim for the Baltic States. “This war is not over the territory of Ukraine but over the independence of Eastern Europe. That is why we must support Ukraine and there should not be any limits to this help,” said Jankowski.  

Poland’s support for Ukraine has been especially forthcoming when it comes to the country’s humanitarian response. Poland began to see increasing numbers of Ukrainians in 2014, the year the conflict effectively started with Russia’s takeover of Crimea. “We opted for a very simple way of permitting them to work,” said Jabłoński.  

Following the Russian invasion last year, a massive influx of 8 million refugees crossed the border into Poland, though many eventually went on to Romania and Moldova while others returned home. Recent arrivals have brought the total number of Ukrainians living in Poland to 3.37 million people. “In every Polish city, you can meet someone from Ukraine. There was never any ghettoization. Their integration was virtually seamless and today Ukrainians make up 8 percent of the total population in Poland,” said Jabłoński.   

A shared history not without dark episodes  

“Many Poles who take Ukrainian refugees into their homes see Ukraine as a very new nation, and they consider the relationship between Poland and Ukraine as a brotherhood,” said Jankowski. The history between the two countries is not without dark episodes. During the Second World War, Poles were the victims of ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists, while Poles forcibly deported thousands of Ukrainians. Decades later, former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Koutchma led a historic and formal Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation beginning in 1995.  

The strong bond between the two countries comes from similar languages and a shared history. In 1997, Ukraine and Poland had a no-visa regime. The experience of Ukrainians in a large, Slavic country with functioning public institutions and a free market helped drive calls for reform in Ukraine, wrote the historian Timothy Snyder in his book “The Construction of Nations”. At the turn of the century, Poland resisted pressure from the European Union to end its visa-free regime with Ukraine, asserting its right to fulfill its obligations once its adhesion to the EU became official. Once Poland joined the EU, its special arrangements with Ukraine came to an end.

While Poland has set a model in terms of welcoming refugees from Ukraine, its hospitality towards refugees from other countries has been debatable. A report from Amnesty International detailed Poland’s “selective solidarity” of welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war and refusing entry to other refugees, principally from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, who were attempting to enter Poland through the border with Belarus. 

Is there an element of self-interest in Poland’s extensive help to Ukraine? Polish Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Jabłoński wrote off the idea, claiming instead that the number one priority was to defend Ukraine and Central European states from a resurgent Russia. “In 2021, Russia demanded NATO to withdraw from Central Europe. If our international position grows while we are helping Ukraine win the war, we would be glad,” he explained.

“If Germany had taken a stronger position for Ukraine, we wouldn’t have had to take on this role. I wish we didn’t have to take on this role,” said Jabłoński, while citing the power imbalance between Central Europe and Western Europe, whose citizens often have the top leadership positions in European institutions.    

‘We want to strengthen NATO and be a driving force within it’ 

An opportunity for developing Central Europe’s role would be through a future Polish-Ukrainian Treaty, which could be signed in the upcoming weeks or months. Comparing it to the Élysée Treaty between France and Germany, Jabłoński said it would be a wide security, cultural and economic agreement. The treaty would “certainly not” be an alternative to NATO. “We want to strengthen NATO and be a driving force within it,” said the deputy foreign minister.  

When it comes to integrating Ukraine into the European Union, Polish leaders and observers are under no illusion. “We know corruption exists within the Ukrainian administration, but Poland [which joined the European Union in 2004] can help with its know-how,” said Jankowski.  

With the enlargement of the EU, citizens from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine found themselves materially and symbolically separated from “Europe”, according to Snyder, who noted that the hard border may have been helpful to authoritarian rulers like Lukashenko. By helping Ukraine, Poland is considering “lessons that were repeated in the past”, said Jabłoński, “because otherwise we could be victims again”.  

 

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