NATO peacekeepers injured in clashes with ethnic Serb protesters in Kosovo

Over 30 peacekeepers deployed in a NATO-led mission in Kosovo were injured Monday in clashes with Serb protesters who demanded the removal of recently elected ethnic Albanian mayors, as tensions flare in the Balkan nation.

The KFOR mission said it had faced “unprovoked attacks” while countering a hostile crowd, after demonstrators clashed with police and tried to force their way into a government building in the northern town of Zvecan.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said 52 Serbs were hurt, three seriously, while one was “wounded with two gunshots by (ethnic) Albanian special forces”.

Hungary‘s defence minister said on Facebook that “more than 20 Hungarian soldiers” were among the wounded, with seven in a serious but stable condition.

Italy‘s foreign minister said three of its soldiers were seriously wounded, and the country’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni joined NATO in calling for “all parties to take a step back to lower tensions”.

Kosovo‘s Serbs had boycotted last month’s elections in northern towns, which allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of under 3.5 percent of voters.

Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government officially installed the mayors last week, defying calls to ease the tensions by the European Union and the United States, which have both championed the territory’s 2008 independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs are demanding the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces — whose presence in northern Kosovo has long sparked resistance — as well as the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives.

Fractures and burns

Early Monday, groups of Serbs clashed with Kosovo police in front of the municipal building in Serb-majority Zvecan and tried to enter, after which law enforcers responded by firing tear gas, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.kf

NATO-led peacekeepers in the KFOR mission at first tried to separate protesters from the police, but later started to disperse the crowd using shields and batons, an AFP journalist saw.

Several protesters responded by hurling rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers, but were quickly repelled a few hundred meters away from the Zvecan municipal building.

“While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices,” KFOR said in a statement.

Eleven Italian soldiers were injured with “three in a serious condition”, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said.

“We will not tolerate further attacks against KFOR,” said Meloni. “It is essential to avoid further unilateral actions by the Kosovo authorities and for all parties to take a step back to lower tensions”.

NATO strongly condemned the “unprovoked” attacks against KFOR troops, adding that such actions were “totally unacceptable”.

“Violence must stop immediately. We call on all sides to refrain from actions that further inflame tensions, and to engage in dialogue,” NATO said in a statement.

The Commander of the KFOR Mission, Division General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, slammed the “unacceptable” attacks and underlined that KFOR will “continue to fulfil its mandate impartially”.

Kosovo police said “organised” demonstrators rallied in northern Kosovo towns, home to many ethnic Serbs who reject Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

“The protesters, using violence and throwing tear gas, tried to cross the security cordons and make a forced entry into the municipality facility” in Zvecan, Kosovo police said in a statement.

“Police were forced to use legal means, such as (pepper) spray, to stop the protesters and bring the situation under control.”

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Belgrade and its key allies Russia and China have refused to recognise it, effectively preventing Kosovo from having a seat at the United Nations.

Serbs in Kosovo remained largely loyal to Belgrade, especially in the north, where they make up a majority and reject every move by Pristina to consolidate its control over the region.

International concern

KFOR said it had bolstered its presence in northern Kosovo following the latest developments and urged Belgrade and Pristina to engage in an EU-led dialogue to reduce tensions.

“We call on all sides to refrain from actions that could inflame tensions or cause escalation,” KFOR said in a statement.

Police had already used tear gas Friday to disperse Serbs in northern Kosovo who protested the installation of the mayors.

Belgrade responded by placing its army on high alert and ordered forces towards the Serbian border with Kosovo.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on a visit to Kenya, said that “Serbs are fighting for their rights in northern Kosovo”.

“A big explosion is looming in the heart of Europe, where NATO in 1999 carried out an aggression against Yugoslavia,” Lavrov said, referring to the 1999 NATO intervention against Belgrade that effectively ended the war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

The US ambassador and European Union envoy have summoned the ethnic Albanian mayors to a meeting in Pristina in a bid to ease tensions.

Two media teams from Pristina reported that protesters had slashed their tyres and spray-painted their vehicles, while a local journalists’ association called on law enforcers to provide a safe working environment for the media.

After his first-round victory at the French Open on Monday, Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic penned the message “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence” on a television camera.

“Kosovo is our cradle, our stronghold, centre of the most important things for our country,” Djokovic told reporters.

“I am against war, violence and conflict of any kind and I have always publicly shown that. Of course I have sympathy for all people but what is happening with Kosovo is a precedent in international law.”


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Turkey elections | Why Europe is watching closely

Turkey’s elections on May 14 are a key moment not just for the country itself but also for its European neighbours.

With President Tayyip Erdogan facing his toughest electoral test in two decades, European Union and NATO members are watching to see whether change comes to a country that affects them on issues ranging from security to migration and energy. Relations between Erdogan and the EU have become highly strained in recent years, as the 27-member bloc cooled on the idea of Ankara becoming a member and condemned crackdowns on human rights, judicial independence and media freedom.

Also read | Turkish candidate drops out of presidential race

Leading members of NATO, to which Turkey belongs, have expressed alarm at Mr. Erdogan’s close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and concern that Turkey is being used to circumvent sanctions on Moscow over its war in Ukraine.

Erdogan’s challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has pledged more freedom at home and foreign policies hewing closer to the West.

Whatever the outcome, Turkey’s European neighbours will use the election and its aftermath to assess their relationship with Ankara and the degree to which it can be reset.

Here are some key issues that European countries will be watching, according to officials, diplomats and analysts:

Election conduct

EU officials have been careful not to express a preference for a candidate. But they have made clear they will be looking out for vote-rigging, violence or other election interference.

Pedestrians walk past a giant banner of Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, background right, at Taksim square in Istanbul on May 10, 2023.
| Photo Credit:

“It is important that the process itself is clean and free,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a German member of the European Parliament who co-chairs a group of EU and Turkish lawmakers.

Peter Stano, a spokesman for the EU’s diplomatic service, said the bloc expected the vote to be “transparent and inclusive” and in line with democratic standards Turkey has committed to. A worst-case scenario for both Turkey and the EU would be a contested result – perhaps after a second round – leading the incumbent to launch a crackdown on protests, said Dimitar Bechev, the author of a book on Turkey under Erdogan.

Sweden and NATO

“Five more years of Erdogan means five more years of Turkey being with one weak foot in NATO and one strong foot with Russia,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.

Erdogan has vexed other NATO members by buying a Russian S-400 missile defence system and contributing little to NATO’s reinforcement of its eastern flank.

An early test of whether the election winner wants to mend NATO ties will be whether he stops blocking Swedish membership. Erdogan has demanded Stockholm extradite Kurdish militants but Swedish courts have blocked some expulsions.

Analysts and diplomats expect Kilicdaroglu would end the block on Sweden joining NATO, prompting Hungary – the only other holdout – to follow suit. That could let Sweden join in time for a NATO summit in Lithuania in July.

Some analysts and diplomats say Erdogan might also lift his objections after the elections but others are unconvinced.

Relations with Russia

Although Mr. Erdogan has tried to strike a balance between Moscow and the West, his political relationship with Mr. Putin and Turkey’s economic ties to Russia are a source of EU frustration. That will likely continue if Erdogan wins another term.

If Kilicdaroglu triumphs, European officials would likely be content with a gradual shift away from Moscow, recognising that Turkey is in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and its economy depends on Russia to a significant extent.

“With Russia, a new government will be treading very carefully,” Mr. Bechev said. However, Kilicdaroglu showed this week he was willing to criticise Russia, publicly accusing Moscow of responsibility for fake material on social media ahead of Sunday’s ballot.

Rule of law, Cyprus

If Kilicdaroglu and his coalition wins, the EU will be keen to see if they keep promises to release Mr. Erdogan critics from jail, in line with European Court of Human Rights rulings, and generally improve rule-of-law standards.

“You’re going to have a wait-and-see attitude from the EU,” said Mr. Pierini.

If there is a crackdown on graft, European companies may be ready to make big investments in Turkey once again, perhaps with backing from the EU and its member governments, he said.

Turkey – Syria earthquake | Why India’s relief efforts matter

Efforts to expand an EU-Turkey customs union to include more goods and grant Turks visa-free EU travel could also be revived.

But neither would be easy – not least because of the divided island of Cyprus. Its internationally recognised government, composed of Greek Cypriots, is an EU member, while the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state is recognised only by Ankara.

“This is of course the big stumbling block in our relations,” said European Parliament member Lagodinsky.

However, EU officials see little sign that Kilicdaroglu would change much on Cyprus.

“The big game changer for EU-Turkey relations would be Cyprus. Here the candidates’ agenda, however, does not seem fundamentally different,” said a senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cyprus is one of many factors that make a revival of EU membership negotiations unlikely, officials and analysts say. EU leaders designated Turkey as a candidate to join the bloc in 2004 but the talks ground to a halt years ago.

“There are many other ways to strengthen the relationship, build confidence. There is already a lot of European money that has made its way to Turkey,” said a European diplomat. “I don’t know anyone in Europe who wants to revive EU membership talks.”

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Why is a former NATO chief lobbying for a CSTO member? | VIEW

It is easy to forget in this time of war in Ukraine that NATO is an organisation supposed to enable peace.

So, why would anyone raise questions when a past NATO secretary general goes to a country not in the NATO alliance to foster or pitch peace between it and its long-term rival and neighbour?

This happened in mid-March when former Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Armenia — an ex-Soviet nation in the Caucasus — trying to negotiate a peace treaty with its neighbour Azerbaijan after a conflict two years ago.

But when Armenia is not just a member of Russia’s six-nation CSTO military alliance, but the chair of the organisation — and the former NATO chief was being paid by the Armenian government for the visit — it calls for some answers.

Rasmussen didn’t mention this in any of the interviews, tweets, and media articles he generated, something he should have done even when his transactional relationship with Russia’s military ally is listed in the EU’s lobbyist register.

By not being upfront, he’s been disingenuous, which is unbecoming of a man of his status.

Rasmussen still surprised many — and triggers a bot army

But the real surprise is what he said while the Armenians were paying. In the most significant media interview of his visit, he raised the prospects for peace, and extolled the undeniable economic benefits for the people of Armenia if a peace treaty is signed with their neighbour.

He also raised the fact that to achieve that peace, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh — an unrecognised majority Armenian ethnic breakaway state inside the borders of Azerbaijan — needs to be settled.

In that, he has a point: whether or not Armenia is friends with Russia — and membership of both Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union and its military alliance could be read as a hint that they might be close — doesn’t change the fact that peace with the neighbours tends to benefit every country.

His view that peace is good and economic progress even better nonetheless sent the social media warriors berserk.

Rasmussen was soon being assailed, as James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation once described, by “more trolls than ever appeared in The Lord of Rings”.

One even accused him of basically doing Azerbaijan’s public relations for them. If only they knew.

Are Armenia’s government and diaspora headed for a split?

Yet perhaps the Armenian government picked the right lobbyist.

Far from telling the powerful Armenian diaspora in the US and France — who have long influenced the foreign policy direction for the Armenian state — what they want to hear, he told it as it is.

Peace and economic cooperation with neighbouring Azerbaijan is, ultimately, the only viable route to a better life for the poor and undeniably long-suffering citizens of Armenia when the alternative remains continued Russian-dependent isolation.

To ex-Soviet-state-watchers such as myself, it has appeared for some time that the paths of the Armenian state and Armenian diaspora have been diverging.

Like in my own Lithuania, the first few years of Armenian independence saw its leaders drawn from the diaspora.

Then, after Armenia won a war against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, they came from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani territory they occupied in victory.

While ignoring four UN resolutions — supported by every single NATO country in successive votes — upholding the legal status of the region as a sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, the diaspora has long lobbied for recognition of Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, also called Artsakh, as an independent state.

Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan are being fair and measured

But in the last two years, things have changed. Azerbaijan won back the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh in a conflict in 2020. Today, only a rump remains under Armenian control.

Few serious international experts today would argue against the view that it is only a matter of time before this matter is settled — and in favour of international law.

It is not hard to read between the lines and conclude Rasmussen is merely voicing the conclusion of his own Armenian government client on the direction of travel, perhaps expressing what, for political reasons, they themselves have found it difficult to say publicly.

Indeed, the social media army that descended on Rasmussen were perhaps revealing their frustration that their version of Nagorno-Karabakh’s future may be slipping away.

Was Rasmussen right to go? Certainly, he should have been more upfront that this was a paid work trip.

But his visit appeared to open the door for Yerevan to speak with more clarity than before about their own agenda: right after he departed, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan criticised the CSTO and tweeted his conviction that there would be a peace treaty with Azerbaijan.

He then said the “international community must strongly support this narrative”. Azerbaijan responded through their Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aykhan Hajizada, who said that “territorial integrity and sovereignty must prevail in our region”.

They were some of the fairest, most measured words said by the two nations in response to each other in public for years.

Rasmussen called for arming Armenia instead

Since he departed, Rasmussen has slightly changed his tune. Perhaps those Lord of the Rings trolls are having their effect.

In an op-ed for Project Syndicate, he proposed the EU armed Armenia to prevent another conflict with Azerbaijan.

The EU, of course, can’t provide enough arms to Ukraine or even itself, but perhaps that message at least lessened the Twitter attacks.

Still, Rasmussen has certainly shone a light on the surprising reality that Armenia’s real long-term ally, like it or not, has to be its neighbour and sworn enemy, Azerbaijan.

_Saul Anuzis is a Lithuanian-American former advisor to the Lithuanian independence movement Sąjūdis and a former member of the Republican National Committee in the US. _

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

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Russian shelling in Ukraine’s eastern city of Sloviansk kills at least eight

The Russian shelling of a residential building in Sloviansk on Friday killed at least eight people and injured 21, according to the Donetsk regional governor. Also on Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that China won’t sell weapons to either side in the war in Ukraine, in response to Western concerns that Beijing could provide military assistance to Russia. Follow our blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2)

This live blog is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage on the war in Ukraine, please click here.

9:35pm: Ukraine secures $5 billion in further funding after meetings, prime minister says

Ukraine secured promises of $5 billion in additional funding to support its ongoing fight against Russia during “fruitful meetings” in Washington this week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told reporters on Friday.

Shmyhal met with representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank as well as top US officials, on the sidelines of the spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank.

He said Ukraine received new pledges of additional support from Switzerland, Denmark and a number of other countries during the meetings, as well as an agreement from US aircraft maker Boeing to relieve Ukrainian companies of $200 million in previous commitments. Kyiv expected to receive more support during an upcoming conference in London, he added.

8:55pm: Death toll in Russian shelling of Sloviansk flats rises to eight, says Donetsk regional governor

The death toll in a Russian shelling of an apartment block in the east Ukrainian city Sloviansk has risen to eight including a toddler, the governor of the Donetsk region said on Friday.

 “Twenty-one people were wounded and eight people died,” the governor of the Donetsk region Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian television.

8:52pm: Family of detained US journalist in Russia breaks silence

The parents of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on Friday said that they remained optimistic for a positive outcome to his detention insisting that their son “still loved Russia.”

“It’s one of the American qualities that we absorbed, you know, be optimistic, believe in a happy ending,” Gershkovich’s mother, Ella Milman told the Wall Street Journal, speaking out for the first time since his arrest. “But I am not stupid. I understand what’s involved, but that’s what I choose to believe,” she added.

Ella and her husband Mikhail Gershkovich fled the Soviet Union separately in 1979 and settled in New Jersey, raising their two children, Evan and a daughter Danielle.

The spying charges against Gershkovich, who had previously worked for the Moscow bureau of AFP, are the first of their kind in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, prompting an outcry from media outlets, rights groups and foreign governments.

8:38pm: Putin signs electronic draft bill into law

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a bill to create a digital draft system, greatly facilitating mobilising Russians into the army, more than a year into the Kremlin’s Ukraine offensive.

The bill cracks down on those seeking to avoid conscription. A document of the law was published on an official government information portal, Russian news agencies reported.

>> Read more: Russia’s electronic draft: As soon as they hit ‘send’, you’ve been called up

8:30pm: Asked about leaked US intel, Ukraine says remains united with US, partners

Ukraine remains united with the United States and other partners in its ongoing military fight against Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told reporters on Friday.

Asked about the leaked U.S. intelligence, Shmyhal said no Russian disinformation would disrupt Ukraine’s battle for its country.

7:14pm: Airman charged as US vows to send message over documents leak

A young national guardsman was charged Friday with orchestrating the most damaging leak of US classified documents for a decade, as the government signaled it intends to make an example of the 21-year-old.

Jack Teixeira was arrested Thursday following a week-long probe into the leak of documents which unveiled US concern over Ukraine’s ability to fend off the Russian invasion.

6:37pm: UN chief raises concerns with Russia about Ukraine grain deal

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has written to Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to raise concerns about the implementation of a deal that allows the safe wartime export of grain from several Ukrainian Black Sea ports, a UN spokesman said on Friday.

The move comes after the United Nations said no ships were inspected on Tuesday under the deal “as the parties needed more time to reach an agreement on operational priorities.”

Inspections resumed on Wednesday.

6:05pm: Finland unveils first section of Russian border fence

Finland’s border guard on Friday unveiled the first section of a 200-kilometre border fence with Russia being built after Moscow invaded Ukraine last year.

Finland joined NATO just a week ago and its 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border has also doubled the frontier between the US-led military alliance and Russia.

Three metres (10 feet) tall and topped with barbed wire, it will cost around 380 million euros ($417 million) and is due to be completed by 2026.

 “The necessity was triggered by a change in the security situation in Europe,” Brigadier General Jari Tolppanen Tolppanen told reporters. “There is a need to reduce dependence on the effectiveness of Russian border control.”

5:58pm: UK says Ukrainian troops forced to leave parts of Bakhmut

Ukrainian troops have been forced to withdraw from some territory in the battlefield city of Bakhmut as Russia mounts a renewed assault there, Britain said in an intelligence update on Friday.

5:50pm: Russian shelling kills five, wounds 15 in eastern city of Sloviansk, Kyiv says

The Russian shelling of a residential building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk on Friday killed at least five people and wounded 15, the local governor said, warning that there could be people buried in the rubble.

“As of 18:00 local time (1600 GMT), there are five dead and 15 wounded,” the governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Telegram. “There is a possibility that seven people, including one child, are under the rubble.”

1:55pm: China vows not to sell arms to any party in Ukraine war

China won’t sell weapons to either side in the war in Ukraine, the country’s foreign minister has said, responding to Western concerns that Beijing could provide military assistance to Russia.

China has maintained that it is neutral in the conflict, while backing Russia politically, rhetorically and economically at a time when Western nations have imposed punishing sanctions and sought to isolate Moscow for its invasion of its neighbour.

Qin Gang is the highest-level Chinese official to make such an explicit statement about arms sales to Russia. He added that China would also regulate the export of items with dual civilian and military use.

“Regarding the export of military items, China adopts a prudent and responsible attitude,” Qin said at a news conference alongside visiting German counterpart Annalena Baerbock. “China will not provide weapons to relevant parties of the conflict, and manage and control the exports of dual-use items in accordance with laws and regulations.”

1:15pm: Finnish embassy in Moscow receives letter containing powder

Finland‘s embassy in Moscow has received a letter containing an unknown powder and has reported the matter to the Russian authorities, Russian news agencies report.

Relations between Moscow and Helsinki have deteriorated sharply since Finland formally joined NATO on April 4, becoming the 31st member of the US-led military alliance. Finland shares a long land border with Russia.

The embassy received three letters on Thursday, one of which contained a powder, the RIA news agency reported.

“In line with the security rules of the Finnish foreign ministry, the letters in question were handed to official representative organs of Russia which will study the matter,” RIA quoted the embassy as saying.

11:15am: China defence minister to visit Moscow next week

Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Li Shangfu will visit Russia next week for meetings with counterpart Sergei Shoigu and other military officials, China’s Defence Ministry has said.

Li’s visit underscores China’s strengthening engagement with Russia, with which it has largely aligned its foreign policy in an attempt to reshape the world order to diminish the influence of the United States and other Western democracies.

China has refused to criticise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blamed the US and NATO for provoking Moscow. During a 2022 visit to Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued a joint statement declaring a “no limits” relationship between the two countries.

Li will also visit Russia’s military academy during his April 16-19 trip, Defence Ministry spokesperson Col. Tan Kefei said.

The trip follows an official visit to Moscow last month by Xi that emphasised how China is increasingly becoming the senior partner in the relationship as it provides Russia with political cover and an economic lifeline during its war on Ukraine.

10:50am: Russia puts Pacific Fleet on high alert in surprise inspection

Russia has put its Pacific naval fleet on high alert as part of a surprise inspection aimed at building its defensive capabilities, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has said.

“The main objective of this inspection is to increase the ability of the Armed Forces to repel the aggression of a probable enemy from the direction of ocean and sea,” Shoigu said on state television.

The drill will also simulate an enemy landing on Russia’s Sakhalin island and on its southern Kuril Islands, some of which are claimed by Japan in a territorial dispute dating back to the end of World War Two.

Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov said Russia’s naval forces would be deployed to training areas and would carry out combat exercises as part of the drill.

10:25am: Russian oil exports jump despite sanctions

Russian oil exports jumped to their highest level in almost three years in March despite Western sanctions, but revenues were down sharply from last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said.

The West has imposed a slew of sanctions against Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022, including price caps on its crude and oil products and EU embargoes.

Russia retaliated by slashing its production by 500,000 barrels per day, and its partners at the OPEC+ oil cartel shocked the markets by announcing their own output cuts earlier this month.

The IEA said total oil shipments from Russia rose by 600,000 bpd to 8.1 million bpd last month. While Russia’s oil revenues rebounded by $1 billion to $12.7 billion, they were still down 43 percent compared to a year ago.

9:45am: Ukraine bans its national teams from competing with athletes from Russia, Belarus

Ukraine has banned its national sports teams from competing in Olympic, non-Olympic and Paralympic events that include competitors from Russia and Belarus, the sports ministry has said in a decree.

The decision, criticised by some Ukrainian athletes, comes after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) angered Kyiv by paving the way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine had previously warned its sports federations that it would strip them of their status as governing bodies if their athletes competed on the international stage with Russians and Belarusians.

Some Ukrainian athletes, including Olympian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych, have criticised the ban, saying it will lead to the destruction of Ukrainian sports.

“If Ukrainian representatives are not present at competitions, then we completely vacate the international sports grounds and give the Russian/Belarusian representatives the opportunity to promote their narratives and propaganda,” he wrote on Twitter.

4:09am: Russia claims Bakhmut has been surrounded

Russia said Thursday it had cut off Ukrainian forces inside Bakhmut, while Kyiv insisted supply lines were still open into the town, scene of the most brutal battle of the war.

AFP was unable to verify the status on the ground in the eastern town, which has turned into the longest and bloodiest fight since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

The Russian army said its airborne troops were “blocking the transfer of Ukrainian army reserves to the city and the possibility of retreat for enemy units”. It also said that Wagner mercenary units were advancing in Bakhmut.

But the Ukrainian army told AFP it had communication with its troops inside Bakhmut and was able to send them munitions. “This does not correspond to reality,” Sergiy Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces said, referring to Russia’s claims. “We are able to … deliver food products, ammunition, medicines, all that is necessary, and also to recover our wounded.” The Ukrainian general staff nevertheless acknowledged a “difficult” situation in Bakhmut.

  • Key developments from Thursday, April 14:

The European Union added Russia’s Wagner mercenary group to its sanctions list for “actively participating in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine” as US authorities made an arrest in connection with the leak of confidential documents.

A Ukrainian army spokesman rejected Moscow’s claims of “blocking” Kyiv’s forces from getting in or out of the frontline hotspot of Bakhmut, while Russian paramilitary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin also said it was premature to claim Russia had encircled Ukrainian forces in the war-torn city.

>> Read our live blog for all of yesterday’s developments as they unfolded

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

 (FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and Reuters)

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China ‘trying to have it both ways’ with Russia, says Antony Blinken

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year triggered Finland’s application to NATO along with that of Sweden. On Tuesday, Helsinki completed the fastest accession process in the alliance’s history. But Sweden, for the moment, remains left behind.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine rages on, and China’s position is sparking fresh concerns from NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, who has accused Beijing of spreading the Kremlin’s wartime narrative and sustaining its economy.

Euronews’ Efi Koutsokosta spoke to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in Brussels to discuss Finland, Sweden, Turkey, Taiwan and US-China relations, for this latest episode of the Global Conversation.

Sweden’s hopes of joining NATO

Finland on Tuesday officially became the 31st member of the NATO military alliance.

But in a statement, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö insisted that “Finland’s membership is not complete without that of Sweden.”

Euronews began by asking Antony Blinken for his thoughts on Sweden’s chances of joining the alliance.

“I’m convinced that it will happen. It will happen soon. I fully anticipate that by the Vilnius summit, the leaders’ summit of NATO, that’ll take place in July, that Sweden will join Finland as the two newest members of NATO.

“There’s a process. And of course, virtually every NATO country has already ratified Sweden’s membership. Turkey and Hungary have not yet. But based on everything I heard, including virtually every ally in the meetings that we had just today and yesterday, calling for Sweden to join Finland as soon as possible. And I think with the leaders summit coming up in Vilnius, again, I would anticipate that that process will be complete by Vilnius,” Blinken said.

Why has Turkey tried to delay or block NATO expansion?

When Turkey’s parliament ratified Finland’s application to join NATO in late March, it lifted the last hurdle in the way of the Nordic country’s long-delayed accession into the Western military alliance.

But Ankara has stalled Sweden’s bid over its stance towards groups it considers to be terrorist organisations, notably concerning militant Kurdish groups and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt.

“Turkey has legitimate interests, and it’s worked directly and well with both Finland and Sweden to try to address some of those interests and concerns. I think you’ve seen the success of that process manifest itself with Finland’s accession to NATO. And again, I fully anticipate it’ll be the same thing for Sweden in the weeks and months ahead. And in any event, I would anticipate by the Vilnius summit.”

Euronews asked the US Secretary of State if he thought Turkey had been resisting NATO expansion in a bid to encourage Washington to provide Ankara with F-16 fighter jets.

“For us, that’s a totally separate question. We support Turkey getting an upgraded F-16 program to include new F-16s, to include modernizing existing F-16s. That is for us, for the Biden administration, independent of the accession process to NATO or for that matter, any other question,” he said.

China’s role in the Ukraine war

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow in late March, with a peace plan in hand.

China so far says that it wants to stay neutral when it comes to this war. Euronews asked Blinken if he saw that position changing.

“First, the peace ideas that the Chinese put on the table, some of them are positive. Indeed. They reflect things that China has said for a long time and that many of us have said for a long time. But the very first element of what it put on the table, sovereignty, that should be the focus and China’s focus should be on convincing Russia to actually respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and to give back the territory that it seized by force in violation of the United Nations charter, in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“I think China’s also trying to have it both ways. It wants to be seen as trying to advance peace and at the same time, it continues to support Russia in different ways, rhetorically making its case in international institutions, advancing Russian propaganda about the aggression. And as we’ve said some weeks ago, even considering providing Russia with lethal assistance.”

What can President Macron and President von der Leyen achieve in Beijing?

French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, are holding a trilateral meeting on Thursday with their Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the French leader’s state visit to Beijing.

Macron and von der Leyen had expressed hopes to encourage China to increase its pressure on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

“China has a relationship with Russia that gives it some leverage. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but gives it some leverage,” US Secretary of State Blinken told Euronews.

“With Russia, Russia is increasingly dependent on China. It’s the junior partner in this relationship, but it’s increasingly dependent on China. So we would hope that China would use that voice that it has with Russia, the extent it has leverage, the leverage that it has to move to a just and durable peace.”

The EU chief has called for the economic “de-risking” of the EU’s relationship with China, as opposed to Washington’s approach of “decoupling” trade with Beijing – notably in areas such as high technology.

“President von der Leyen’s speech was very strong and totally consistent with our approach to China and the approach of many partners and allies. And she’s exactly right. This is not about decoupling. It is about de-risking,” Blinken revealed.

“It is, for example, in the case of the economic relationship. Yes, sustaining that because it’s important to all of us, but making sure that in critical sectors where our security could be at risk – [we reduce the risk.] We all have complicated and very consequential relations and relationships with China. And I think what you’ve seen in the last couple of years is a growing convergence between the United States and Europe, as well as key partners in Asia, a growing convergence in how we approach the relationship with China.”

What do tensions between Taiwan and China mean for US-China relations?

Amid months of escalating tensions in the air and seas around Taiwan, which China sees as a breakaway province, President Joe Biden last September affirmed that the US would defend Taiwan if China decided to attack the island.

Euronews asked Antony Blinken how close he believes we are to a superpower conflict between the US and China.

“We have been very clear that we do not want we do not seek a conflict. We’re not trying to contain China. We, on the contrary, want to preserve peace, stability, [and] create opportunity. When it comes to Taiwan, our policy has been consistent for decades. Any differences between mainland China and Taiwan need to be resolved peacefully. Neither side should do anything to disrupt the status quo, not take any unilateral actions that would do that.”

When asked if he thought that was changing now, Blinken said that “That is up to Beijing, from our perspective.”

“There is concern that, were there to be a crisis as a result of China’s actions over Taiwan, that would have repercussions for quite literally every country on earth.

“50% of commercial traffic, 50% of global commercial traffic goes through the Taiwan Strait every day, 70% of the semiconductors that we need for our smartphones, for our dishwashers, for our cars, they’re made [in] Taiwan. If there was some kind of crisis as a result of something that China did that would have terribly disruptive effects on the global economy, which is why countries around the world look to everyone to behave and act responsibly.

“We’re determined in the case of the United States to make sure that we are managing our relationship with China responsibly. That’s what other countries expect and that’s what we seek to do. And again, no one is looking for conflict. Quite the contrary. We want to make sure that we avoid that. And yes, we’re in competition. Nothing wrong with competition as long as it’s fair. But we want to make sure that that competition does not veer into conflict.”

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Who is sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, and is it enough?

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s arrival to Europe in early February came with a clear message for his allies: give us combat aircraft and heavy weapons, and don’t delay.

“The sooner Ukraine can get powerful, long-range weapons […] the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we will bring peace back to Europe,” he said in a joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris on 8 February.

But the decision to provide Ukraine – which is not a NATO member and thus is not protected by collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty – with heavy weapons is fraught with potential problems, as countries weigh up supporting Ukraine militarily against concerns of potentially escalating the conflict.

So, which countries are sending heavy weapons to Ukraine? And are they doing enough?

What are countries sending?

The US, UK, Poland and Germany have spent the most military support for Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine support tracker.

The same data shows that the United States is clearly leading the way, having pledged €44,3 billion since January 2022.

“The United States has led by far, it’s not even close,” said Brad Bowmann, Senior Director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “And, I think that, combined with Ukrainian bravery and agility, is the reason why Ukraine continues to exist.”

The UK is the second-largest provider of military support to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute.

Data shows that the UK has supplied a wealth of rockets, defence systems, armoured vehicles, weapons, ammunition and training to Ukraine over the last year, to the tune of €2.5 billion. On 14 January 2023, the UK became the first country to provide Ukraine with Challenger 2s, the main modern western battle tank.

According to data from the Kiel Institute, Poland, which shares its eastern border with Ukraine, pledged €2.4 billion in military aid last year. Germany also exported over €2.4 billion in military goods.

“I would point to the Poles as playing a particularly-laudable role. I would point out the Baltic countries as playing a very positive role. You know, big surprise right there on the eastern flank of NATO, they’re closest to the Russian bear, and so they have no illusions about our adversary there”, said Brad Bowmann.

While not a big spender compared to the likes of the US and UK, Estonia is, however, the top provider of defence and humanitarian aid, they have spent around 1.1% of their GDP.

Indeed, Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has said that “If Ukraine fell, freedom would also be in danger in other parts of the world. By helping Ukraine to defend its independence, we are defending the right to freedom and democracy of all countries, including Estonia.”

In 2022, Poland and Estonia were reportedly seeking to raise the alliance’s defence spending benchmark from 2% to 2.5% or even 3% of member countries’ GDP.

Are NATO members sending enough?

The US, the UK and Germany are sending tanks, and Germany has allowed other Western countries to send its homemade tanks from their fleets, but this doesn’t appear to have silenced Kyiv’s call for heavy weapons.

Ukraine has urged the West to provide fighter jets to defend the country against Russia. On his visit to the UK last month, Zelenskyy asked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “give us wings.”  And, US President Joe Biden has already “ruled out” sending the highly sought-after F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

“The F-16s could provide a number of benefits, of capabilities for Ukraine, no doubt. The response the Biden administration is giving is that’s not what they need most right now. I agree with that,” Brad Bowmann told Euronews.

Instead, Bowmann stressed that NATO allies could be doing much more in terms of fulfilling their defence spending pledges.

“I would just quickly point to […] the most recent report on defence spending by NATO. We still, at this late hour, have most of our European allies not honouring their defence spending commitments. I mean, come on, that’s deeply disappointing,” he told Euronews.

“I’m not a reflexive critic of Europe here, but I mean, come on: the largest land invasion in Europe since World War Two; a major assault on a European capital; tens of thousands of people being murdered and killed in an unjust war trying to defend their homes and you’re not going to honour your defence spending commitments? […] We don’t have the logistics here. Here, Ukraine, here are four tanks. Oh, here are eight tanks. Here are 12 tanks. They need hundreds of tanks!”

Are heavy weapons arriving quickly enough?

In February, the Biden administration pledged to send the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb, or GLSDB, a system with a far greater range than Ukraine’s Western-supplied artillery rockets.

However, these weapons are not expected to arrive until autumn and experts fear this will be too late as key Russian and Ukrainian offensives are expected and could determine how the war will play out.

“A lot of countries, including the United States […] have done what we call ‘the cheque’s in the mail’ approach: hey, we’re going to send this or that. And in a lot of cases, the item in question will not arrive until four months later,” Bowmann explained.

“If you’re a Ukrainian fighting on the front lines, seeing your buddies getting killed and maimed […] the ‘cheque’s in the mail’ approach is probably particularly dissatisfying for them […] especially when they understand that they literally are on the frontier of freedom, fighting for all of us.”

Fear of provocation

In a speech to the Bundestag on 25 January, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would finally send 14 Leopard 2A tanks to Ukraine and would also allow other countries to re-export theirs if they wished to do so.

Berlin was initially hesitant to pledge heavy weapons deliveries, citing concerns about potentially escalating the conflict. It chose instead to offer non-lethal equipment, like combat helmets.

It was heavily criticised for this, notably by President Zelenskyy. There was also pressure from fellow European neighbours, such as Poland, to approve the re-export of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Bowmann made reference to Ukraine’s former President Petro Porosheko’s 2014 visit to the White House to ask then-President Barack Obama for weapons to fight Russia-backed separatists in Crimea.

In a speech to the US Senate and House of Representatives, he said “Blankets and night-vision goggles are also important. But one cannot win the war with blankets.”

“He was saying that because the Obama administration refused to provide weapons to Ukraine. Why? Why? Because we didn’t want to provoke Putin,” Bowmann explained.

“So my core message to anyone willing to listen is that we should spend more time helping build beleaguered democracies and less time worrying about provoking authoritarian bullies who are probably going to invade anyway.”

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Ukrainian forces cling to Bakhmut under severe Russian pressure

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Saturday has carried out an inspection of the front line in eastern Ukraine, according to the ministry, as fighting raged around the besieged city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces defending the eastern city are facing increasingly strong pressure from Russian forces, British intelligence said. Read about the day’s events as they unfolded on our liveblog. All times Paris time (GMT+1).

This live page is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

6:35pm: Mourners commemorate death anniversary of 8 men killed in Bucha

Clutching flowers and wiping away tears, relatives and friends of eight men executed by Russian forces during the occupation of the Ukrainian town of Bucha marked the first anniversary of the deaths.

The eight had set up a roadblock in an attempt to prevent Russian troops from advancing as they swept toward Kyiv at the start of their invasion. But they were captured, Ukrainian authorities say, and executed.

Their bodies lay outside a building on Yablunska Street for a month, with relatives only able to collect them in April after Russian troops pulled out of Bucha.

Relatives gathered for the anniversary commemoration at the building where the bodies of the men were found. Photos of the victims were hung on the wall of the building between two Ukrainian flags. A wreath of red plastic roses and bouquets of blue and yellow flowers lean against the wall beneath the pictures.

Anna Levchenko, 81, kisses the picture of her grandson Andrii Matviichuk, during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of his death in Bucha, Ukraine, on March 4, 2023. © Thibault Camus, AP

6:14pm: Death toll in Zaporizhzhia strike rises to 11

The death toll from a Russian missile strike on Thursday that hit an apartment block in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia has risen to 11 after a woman’s body was found in the debris, according to the state emergency service.

One child was among those killed in Thursday’s early-morning strike on the five-storey residential building, the service said in a post on the Telegram messaging app.

Officials from the regional administration said in another post that a Russian S-300 missile had hit the building.

5:15pm:Ukrainians still fighting for Bakhmut, but for how long is an ‘open question’

Reporting from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostyantynivka, which lies west of Bakhmut, FRANCE 24 Gulliver Cragg says there’s little doubt that Bakhmut has been “practically surrounded” by the Russians. But, Cragg notes, “there’s a big difference of course between being ‘practically’ or ‘almost’ surrounded, and ‘fully’ surrounded.”

Cragg’s comments come a day after Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said his fighters had “practically” encircled” Bakhmut, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict.

Ukrainian forces still have access to Bakhmut, said Cragg. “There are still various dirt roads that the Ukrainian forces can use to get in and out of the city – which have been used in recent days by two top Ukrainian commanders as a means of showing that, for the moment, they’re still there and they’re still fighting for Bakhmut. But for how long that can go on for clearly that does seem to be very much an open question,” said Cragg.

1:31pm: Fallen Ukrainian troops being sent back to ‘motherland’, says Wagner boss in video clip

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, has published another video, this one showing what he said were coffins containing bodies of Ukrainian soldiers being repatriated to territory held by Kyiv.

In the video, Prigozhin, clad in full military gear, said: “We are sending another shipment of Ukrainian army fighters home. They fought bravely, and perished. That’s why the latest truck will take them back to their motherland.”

The footage shows men in uniform nailing wooden coffins shut and loading them onto a truck.

The latest video came a day after Prigozhin released a clip on Friday claiming his group had “practically encircled” the easter Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin, whose Wagner Group has spearheaded Russia’s months-long assault on Bakhmut, has repeatedly praised the Ukrainian army as a worthy and capable adversary.

10:20am: Ukraine forces under increasingly severe Russian pressure defending Bakhmut, UK says

Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut are facing increasingly strong pressure from Russian forces, British military intelligence said on Saturday, with intense fighting taking place in and around the eastern city.

Russian artillery pounded the last routes out of Bakhmut on Friday, aiming to complete the encirclement of the besieged Ukrainian city and bring Moscow closer to its first major victory in half a year after the bloodiest battle of the war. Reuters observed intense Russian shelling of routes leading west out of Bakhmut, an apparent attempt to block Ukrainian forces’ access in and out of the city. A bridge in the adjacent town of Khromove was damaged by Russian tank shelling.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, said in a video Bakhmut was “practically surrounded” by his forces and Kyiv’s forces had only one road out left.

9:10am: Russia’s defence minister Shoigu pays rare visit inspecting troops on Ukraine front line

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has paid a rare visit to Russia’s forces, carrying out an inspection of the front line in eastern Ukraine, the ministry said Saturday, as fighting rages around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

In a statement published on Telegram, the ministry said “the Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, inspected the forward command post of one of the formations of the Eastern Military District in the South Donetsk direction”, without specifying the exact place or time.

In video published by the ministry, Shoigu is seen awarding medals to Russian military personnel and touring a ruined town with the Eastern Military District’s commander, Colonel-General Rustam Muradov.

Russia’s top military chiefs have visited the front line in Ukraine only sparingly since Russia invaded the country in what it calls a “special military operation” a year ago.

6am: US attorney general in surprise visit to Ukraine, vows to hold ‘Russian war criminals accountable’

US Attorney General Merrick Garland made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Friday and vowed to hold “Russian war criminals accountable” for their actions. The visit was not announced ahead of time for security reasons.

“We are here today in Ukraine to speak clearly, and with one voice: the perpetrators of those crimes will not get away with them,” Garland said. He went to Lviv in western Ukraine at the invitation of his Ukrainian counterpart to take part in the “United for Justice Conference”.

Garland told the conference the United States stood beside Ukraine’s war crimes investigators as they collect and catalogue evidence from blast sites that include hospitals, apartment buildings and schools, exhume mass graves and study human remains – “in order to tell the stories of those who no longer can”, according to a Justice Department transcript of his remarks.

Since the invasion began a year ago, Russia has been committing atrocities on the largest scale of any conflict since World War II, he said. The United States has signed an agreement with Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Romania “that will strengthen our efforts to hold Russian war criminals accountable”, he said.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP & Reuters)

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‘Orion’ military exercises: A fictitious war, but a real test for French troops

Last week France launched Orion 23, months-long military exercises involving thousands of troops, naval and land vehicles, aircraft and an aircraft carrier. The joint military exercise had been in the works since 2020, but as Western powers learned the lessons of the Ukraine war, Orion 23 grew bigger, more ambitious, multidimensional and has drawn in France’s main allies.

It was barely 5am on a Sunday morning when the southern French town of Frontignan was flooded with troops as amphibious military craft landed on its beaches, unleashing hundreds of soldiers and tonnes of heavy equipment.

“It’s definitely a French military landing, which is reassuring right now,” said a resident on an early morning walk. “It creates a bit of a strange atmosphere, which we wouldn’t want on a regular basis,” said another with a nervous smile.

The residents of Frontignan had nothing to fear. The landing on the Mediterranean town was just one part of France’s biggest war games in decades, involving around 12,000 troops including those from NATO allies, being conducted across the country.

The joint exercises, called Orion 23, comes as the Ukraine war enters its second year, with Western nations drawing sobering lessons on military preparedness after decades of defence cuts since the end of the Cold War.

The military exercises, which had been in the works since 2020, were expanded following the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

“The conflict in Ukraine has taught us about high-intensity warfare,” which is played out “on the entire spectrum of modern warfare”, explained General Nicolas Le Nen, commander of the joint exercises.

From anti-jihadist operations to full-scale combat

After several months of reworking the original plan, Orion 23 launched in earnest over the weekend with a vast airborne operation on Saturday in France’s southern Tarn region, followed by Sunday’s amphibious landing of 700 soldiers and 150 vehicles at Frontignan.

“The last amphibious operations carried out by France were the evacuations of French nationals in Yemen in 2015, and before that, in Ivory Coast in 2012,” recalled Lieutenant Dewy, the officer in charge of the flotilla mobilised on Sunday.

After more than two decades of focusing on anti-jihadist operations, the French military has widened the scope of its exercises to include large-scale conflict. For the French soldiers, the last operation in a real theatre of war dates back to 2013’s Operation Serval, when French troops launched a mission to oust Islamist militants from northern Mali.

“Such preparation is absolutely essential, and I hope that it will be reproduced in the future so that we regain the know-how of managing large, joint forces that we lost because we have been focused on narrow operations in small spaces with relatively limited means for the past two decades,” explained General Vincent Desportes in an interview with FRANCE 24 sister station Radio France Internationale (RFI).

Multiple threats in fictional ‘Arnland’ and ‘Mercure’

For the purposes of the war games over the weekend, French troops were landing on “Arnland” – a fictitious allied nation – that was being attacked by its imaginary neighbour, “Mercure”.

Mercure, the hypothetical enemy, has military and geostrategic ambitions that may sound familiar to those who have followed the news over the past 12 months: Mercure is trying to establish its regional dominance by financing a separatist militia to destabilise southern Arnland. It has deployed conventional military forces to its neighbouring state, cut off communications and launched a disinformation campaign.

Arnland, weakened and on the verge of collapse, has turned to its allies for help.

Over the course of the exercises, cyber attacks will also test the responses of the troops, explained Captain Olivier from cyber command. On a simulated social network, “we produce narratives so that we don’t let the adversary’s narrative hold sway”.

On land, at sea, in the air, and in space and cyberspace, the training scenarios are designed to address the multiple threat responses of what French President Emmanuel Macron has called a “new era” of increasingly hybrid warfare.

‘Challenges of the century’

Orion 23 comes weeks after Macron unveiled his vision for modernising France’s military with a defence spending boost to €413 billion ($446 billion) for the 2024-2030 period – up from €295 billion allocated in the previous budget. 

“France has and will have armies ready for the challenges of the century,” said Macron in his New Year’s address to the army at the Mont-de-Marsan air base in southwestern France.

The French government’s ambition is both to modernise the armed forces and to replenish its ammunition stocks, which have reached levels that would be “worrying” in the event of a high-intensity conflict, according to a parliamentary report released on February 17.

The report, by the lower house National Assembly’s National Defence and Armed Forces Committee, issued a stark warning over a problem that has been highlighted by the Ukraine war. “The French army’s ammunition supply has been declining since the end of the Cold War and it seems to have become unsustainable, both in terms of the current strategy and France’s military ambitions,” wrote lawmakers Vincent Bru and Julien Rancoule.

But the latest military exercises are not lacking in either ambition or resources. With an estimated cost of €35 million, Orion 23 is being conducted on an unprecedented scale.

The exercises involve personnel from a range of European countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands – as well as the United States.

The war games are being conducted in four phases over the next few months. Following the weekend’s manoeuvres, which were part of phase two operations after the phase one planning stage, French troops will conduct war games in the Massif de la Gardiole region north of Frontignan until March 11.

A civil-military phase three focusing on the civilian support operations backing the armed forces in the event of a major engagement (health, transport, etc.), the reserves and information warfare and will last through the end of March.

The climax of the exercise is expected to come in the spring, from late April to early May, in northeastern France. Around 12,000 troops in total will be deployed on the ground and in the skies to repel a high-intensity air-land invasion of “Arnland” by “Mercure”.

The exercise is scheduled to end in May and should eventually mobilise 2,300 vehicles, 40 helicopters, some 100 drones and 30 naval vessels, including the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.

(with AFP)

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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Live: Drone strike hits west Ukraine as UN rights body debates war crimes probe

A Russian drone attack early on Monday left two people dead and three more wounded in the western Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi as the UN Human Rights Council convened in Geneva amid calls for unity in condemning Moscow and extending a probe into war crimes committed in Ukraine. Follow our live blog for all the latest developments. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

11:55am: Russia ‘paying a great deal of attention’ to Chinese peace plan

A Chinese peace plan on Ukraine that urges both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation should be analysed in detail, taking the interests of all sides into account, the Kremlin has said.

China, which declared a “no limits” alliance with Russia shortly before Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine a year ago, called for a comprehensive ceasefire in Ukraine on Friday, touting its own peace plan.

“We are paying a great deal of attention to the plan of our Chinese friends,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “Of course, the details need to be painstakingly analysed taking into account the interests of all the different sides. This is a very long and intense process.”

Peskov declined to comment on a US media report that China was considering transferring drones to Russia.

10:55am: Two killed in west Ukraine drone attack

The death toll from Russia’s early morning drone attack in Khmelnytskyi has risen to two, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city has said, adding that both victims were rescue workers.

“Unfortunately, we have another hospital death. Doctors failed to save the life of another hero – a rescuer,” Mayor Oleksandr Symchyshyn said in a social media post. Three other people were injured.

The Ukrainian armed forces said they shot down 11 out of 14 Iranian-made “Shaded” drones deployed by Moscow’s forces overnight. Nine were downed over the capital Kyiv, the head of the city’s military administration said, and there were no reported casualties or damage to infrastructure.

The official, Sergiy Popko, said Russian forces were trying “to exhaust our air defences”, adding that the attack had come in two separate waves.

10:45am: UN chief blames Russia for ‘most massive violations of human rights’

Respect for human rights has gone into reverse, UN chief Antonio Guterres has warned at the start of the UN Human Right Council’s annual session in Geneva, noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “under assault from all sides” 75 years after its signing.

“Some governments chip away at it. Others use a wrecking ball,” Guterres said, singling out Russia’s actions since it invaded Ukraine a year ago.

The “Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered the most massive violations of human rights” being witnessed in the world today, he added. “It has unleashed widespread death, destruction and displacement.”

9:40am: Turkey’s NATO talks with Sweden and Finland to resume on March 9

Turkey says talks with Sweden and Finland regarding their NATO membership bids will resume on March 9, after being suspended in January in the wake of a Koran-burning protest in Stockholm.

The Nordic countries applied last year to join the North Atlantic defence alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine, but Sweden in particular has faced unexpected objections from Turkey.

Ankara accuses Stockholm of harbouring what it considers members of terrorist groups, and has demanded their extradition as a step towards giving Sweden’s NATO membership its green light.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Ankara on Monday that Sweden was still not fulfilling its obligations under a memorandum signed at a NATO summit in Madrid last June, even though NATO’s secretary-general and other allies have said Stockholm has changed its legislation.

“Unfortunately, we have not seen satisfactory steps from Sweden on the implementation of the Madrid memorandum,” Cavusoglu said. “It is not possible for us to say ‘yes’ to Sweden’s NATO bid before we see these steps.”

9:35am: Drone attack kills one, injures four in western Ukraine

A Russian drone attack has killed one person and wounded four more in Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine, the city’s mayor Oleksandr Symchyshyn has said.

Earlier, the Ukrainian armed forces said they had shot down 11 out of 14 drones launched by Moscow’s forces overnight.

8:05am: Russian influence looms over Macron’s Africa trip

French President Emmanuel Macron flies to Africa later today in a bid to counter Russian efforts to dislodge France from the continent, after Paris suffered a series of military and political setbacks in its former sphere of influence.

Macron will visit three African nations around the Congo basin as well as Angola, with the focus of the trip being ostensibly away from France’s troubled former colonies in the Sahel, where anti-French sentiment is on the rise.

Ahead of the trip, Macron is expected to spell out his new African policy in a speech and press conference at the Élysée palace, which FRANCE 24 will broadcast live at 5pm Paris time (GMT+1).

The tour comes just over a week after Burkina Faso booted out French troops and ended a military accord that allowed France to fight insurgents in the West African nation. France also withdrew its forces from Mali last year after the junta there started working with Russian military contractors.

Russia’s Wagner Group has also deployed in the Central African Republic, prompting fears of a domino effect in Paris at a time Western countries are trying to lobby the global south against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

5:30am: Belarusian partisans say Russian military aircraft damaged near Minsk

A Russian A-50 surveillance military aircraft was damaged in a drone attack at an airfield near the Belarus capital of Minsk on Sunday, Belarus partisans and members of the exiled opposition said.

“Those were drones. The participants of the operation are Belarusian,” Aliaksandr Azarov, leader of Belarusian anti-government organization BYPOL, was quoted as saying on the organisation’s Telegram messaging app and on the Poland-based Belsat news channel.

“They are now safe, outside the country.”

Belsat is a Polish broadcaster focused on Belarusian news that Minsk has branded extremist. BYPOL, which includes former law enforcement officers who support opposition politicians, has been branded a terrorist organisation.

Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in a post on Twitter it was the most successful act of sabotage since the beginning of 2022.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the reports. There was no immediate response from the defence ministries of Russia and Belarus to a request for comment.

3:08am: Russia in firing line of top UN rights meet

Russia’s war in Ukraine looms large as the UN Human Rights Council meets Monday, with calls for unity in condemning Moscow and extending a probe into war crimes in the conflict.

Days after the United Nations General Assembly in New York voted overwhelmingly to demand Russia immediately withdraw from Ukraine, Moscow’s war is expected to dominate the opening of the top UN rights body’s main annual session in Geneva.

“We’re looking for this session to show, as the UN General Assembly showed … that the world stands side-by-side with Ukraine,” British ambassador Simon Manley said at an event Friday marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The meeting, which is due to last a record six weeks, will be the first presided over by new UN rights chief Volker Turk, who kicks the session off early Monday.

UN chief Antonio Guterres will also address the council on the first day, while nearly 150 ministers and heads of state and government will speak, virtually or in person, during the four-day high-level segment.

Among them will be the top diplomats of the United States, China, Ukraine and Iran.

8:56pm: US, Poland and Germany may hold joint manoeuvres, minister says

Washington is in talks with Berlin and Warsaw to hold joint military manoeuvres in Poland in response to Russia‘s threat to the eastern border of the NATO alliance, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said Sunday.

Exercises were being “considered”, Pistorius told public broadcaster ARD, without confirming or adding any details “for now”.

Military manoeuvres in a country bordering Ukraine, invaded one year ago by Russia, would send a “very clear” signal to NATO allies “but also to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin”, he added.

NATO “is far from being as weak as (Putin) has believed for a long time”, said Pistorius.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP & Reuters)

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War in Ukraine ‘stems from the Orange Revolution, a humiliating ordeal for Putin’

One year into the war that Russia launched against Ukraine, FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at the anti-Western rhetoric President Vladimir Putin used to justify the conflict, which is rooted in events in the early 2000s, according to historian Françoise Thom, an expert on post-Communist Russia.

On February 24, 2022, as a Putin speech was broadcast on television, Russian troops were penetrating into Ukrainian territory, initiating the most important military operation on European soil since World War II.

During his speech, the Russian president tried to justify the invasion with a brutal tirade against the Kyiv government, which he described as “neo-Nazi”, and against the perceived threat posed by NATO and the US against Russia.

This rhetoric, far from being new, dates back to Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014 and Orange Revolution in 2004, according to historian Françoise Thom, an expert on post-Communist Russia, who spoke with FRANCE 24.

FRANCE 24: In February 2022, Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine by citing the necessity to shield Russia from NATO and the West. When was the first time the Kremlin used this rhetoric?

Françoise Thom: Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric is long-standing. We can date the change in the Kremlin’s discourse to the colour revolutions between 2003 and 2004. At that time, a wave of anti-corruption and pro-democratic liberal movements were sweeping across several post-Soviet states, namely Georgia – the Rose Revolution – and in Ukraine where the Orange Revolution took place in 2004.

In my opinion, the ongoing war stems from the Orange Revolution, which was a humiliating ordeal for Putin. The candidate he backed, Viktor Yanukovych, lost the popular vote to a pro-European candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, in the 2004 elections.

The outcome was a slap in the face for Putin and he developed an intense hatred towards Ukraine and its people. Interpreting the turn of events as the result of US interference, the ex-KGB agent saw scheming by the US as the only reason for his candidate’s loss.

Putin’s paranoid rhetoric took root from that point on. As illustrated by Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov in a 2004 text: “The enemy is on our doorsteps, we have to defend every Russian and every household against the West”.

During the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin challenged the West, especially the US. He then followed up by launching a reform of Russia’s military in 2008. The war against Ukraine therefore has very old roots. Far from an improvisation, the current conflict is part of a wider context tied to Russia’s row with the West.

US foundations were quite active in Ukraine and Georgia in the 1990s and 2000s. What was their role that Putin condemned?

Indeed, there were US foundations operating in Ukraine as well as in Georgia during the colour revolutions. They aimed to train a new generation of executives, which was expected to succeed apparatchiks from the Soviet era. However, we should not see them as manifestations of US foreign policy: They did not necessarily align themselves with the sitting president’s political agenda.

In order to build a starting block for the development of political parties based on liberalism, the role that these foundations played during the colour revolutions was chiefly structured around promoting various tools of election campaigning and on-the-ground organising among these new elites. Even so, the uprisings that took place between 2003 and 2004 were definitely not orchestrated: The population was incensed by post-Communist corruption and the elites were themselves divided.

Putin, who accused the foundations of anti-Russia tendencies that were not necessarily true, thus heavily exaggerated their participation in the colour revolutions. They mainly sought to lend a helping hand to the establishment of liberal democraties ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What is the relationship between the Kremlin and the EU? Did the annexation of Crimea in 2014 mark a turning point?

In 2013, an association proposed by the European Union to post-Soviet countries, namely Ukraine, set off the powder keg. The project clashed with Putin’s desire to integrate Ukraine into a customs union, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), led by Russia.

Putin seeks to build a large European space, from Brest to Vladivostok, where Russia can establish its supremacy while dispelling US influence. In 2013, Ukraine’s then president Yanukovych, under pressure from the Kremlin, rejected the association agreement with the EU while opting to join the EEU. Massive protests erupted in Ukraine, which led to the 2014 Maidan Revolution, an insurrection that Yanukovych tried to repress but failed. He absconded and a new government, which Putin labelled as Nazi, came into power.

Putin annexed Crimea several days later, claiming that it was to defend Russia from NATO and that Crimea has always been Russian despite the transfer to Ukraine in 1954, an error he said was committed by the USSR’s then leader Nikita Khrushchev. Putin also attempted to conquer southern and eastern Ukraine, but had to settle for two separatist enclaves in the east. The armed conflict ended with the ratification of the Minsk agreements on September 5, 2014.

With the Kremlin’s hostility directed towards the US, Putin seeks to re-enact the Cold War but with a different outcome this time, one that would restore Russia to power. In this respect, Putin’s anti-European discourse is principally a consequence of the ties between the UE and the US and NATO.

Until February 2022, Europe was not considered a real political issue by Putin, but rather as an object of dispute with the US. He thought he was subjugating the region via its reliance on Russian gas, which worked until the invasion of Ukraine that month. Putin’s dsicourse with regard to Europe has become more and more hostile as it became apparent in February that the continent was closing ranks around NATO.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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