Why aren’t there any mass protests against Putin in Russia?

By Aleksandar Đokić, Political scientist and analyst

The answer is obvious: maybe Putin’s machinery isn’t that good at breaking Ukraine’s defences, but it is incredibly competent at cracking the skulls of Russian opposition activists, Aleksandar Đokić writes.

“We have never moved in concert with the other peoples. We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either.”

These are the words of one of Russia’s first dissidents, Petr Chaadaev, written in the first half of the 19th century.

This Monday, another Russian dissident and famous journalist, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of much-persecuted newspaper Novaya Gazeta, gave a speech in the European Parliament, emphasising that Vladimir Putin has closed Russia’s window into Europe.

Just like in previous centuries, the Russian intellectual elite finds itself in a struggle for or against Europe.

In many ways, the world’s largest country has indeed always been a part of the continent, as Europe is a mosaic of different cultures and historical experiences.

In Russia, Europe is a symbol of modernity, of being in touch with the times and not falling behind.

Add to this the two main currents that have always existed in Russian culture: one ardently pro-Western, and another fiercely anti-Western.

When Russian intellectuals mention Europe, they do this profoundly only in terms of wanting or not wanting to live in the same era and in line with the same principles as most of the continent.

Today, Europe means democracy, and being anti-Europe and anti-European in Russia means being on the side of political serfdom.

Known knowns and unknown unknowns

Yet, there are many Russias, and the fact is that Russian society has always been elitist, further emphasised by the fact that those on the outside often only discuss the elite parts of Russian society.

The elite in Russia is also a very broad concept that doesn’t apply only to those with political power or substantial material wealth.

Russia’s elite is also cultural or scientific, with artists and scientists being adored and venerated by urban, educated people. Russia even produces intellectual rappers like Oxxxymiron.

On the other hand, there are regular people which the Russian elites think of as “the masses”.

Throughout Russian history, these “masses” were considered ignorant, dangerous or corrupted by those above them, yet endowed with the mystical “Russian soul” — strong in spirit but condemned to constant suffering — inside.

Russia is built upon such myths, one atop the other, with these hard-to-believe archetypes being presented to the curious Western observers as fact and then seeping into Western popular culture.

It’s too late to demonstrate

In reality, Russia is not a mystery. That’s just one more Orientalist perspective we have to overcome.

Its social groups aren’t that different than most in Eastern Europe, teeming with right-wing populism. The only thing that’s different is that Russia used to be an empire, and other Eastern European peoples didn’t have this privilege.

This is a major part of the equation that can be easily glossed over when contemplating the fact that Russians missed the moment to protest when Putin started to strengthen his authoritarian grip on the country, even as he was keeping up the benevolent monarch façade.

Asking Russians why they don’t protest now is not really a good question.

The answer is obvious – there is already a brutal autocratic regime in place, with every instrument to crush even larger protests and put the demonstrators to torture.

Maybe Putin’s machinery isn’t that good at breaking Ukraine’s defences, but it is incredibly competent at cracking the skulls of Russian opposition activists.

The Bolotnaya protests and other far less significant blips

But the question should rather be, “Why have Russians allowed this system to be constructed in the first place?”

Putin wasn’t born an emperor, he carefully and gradually structured what he calls the “vertical of power”.

Russian society mostly slept through this phase, only to awaken for a brief period of time when Putin was to return as sovereign once more, replacing the unconvincing lame duck Dmitry Medvedev.

Enter the Bolotnaya protests, which culminated in December 2011.

These demonstrations didn’t attract the crowds needed to form a critical mass. Putin solidifying his grip on power didn’t prompt Russian opposition to create a united front, either.

Afterwards, the only significant wave of protests was seen during the 2019 Moscow Duma protests.

Yet, the Russian opposition leaders and liberal intellectuals alike fondly remember the two protests against the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which led nowhere and were far less meaningful than the Bolotnaya or the 2019 demonstrations.

Craving someone like Putin

Not only is it too late to protest now — Putin would have to be given a good beating abroad by Ukraine and its allies, coupled with a strike in the back domestically by his own elites in order to leave power.

Let’s face it: it was already too late to protest, even in 2014.

The last chance Russia had was when Putin was completing his “rokirovka”, or reshuffle, with Medvedev.

So why didn’t Russians turn out in the hundreds of thousands back then? The answer can be found in the aforementioned empire complex.

Putin didn’t impose his will on Russian society.

Most of it craved a figure such as Putin — a heavy-handed leader coming from the security apparatus — to bring back order from the chaos of the 1990s, to help the state get up from its knees, and to return it to its lost glory and beyond the condition of present-day embarrassment.

A mirage of the nation’s might

While their country was considered a global superpower, the citizens never really had much to their name.

Russia’s people were mostly poor throughout history: the harsh climate, combined with centralised resources and power in the hands of the few, made sure of this.

The only thing the Russian serfs had — first as Soviet disenfranchised citizens and after that, the impoverished majority caught up in the whirlwind of freedom and financial speculations of the 1990s — was the state’s might.

Putin gave them a mirage of this and added something as a bonus: the high tide of rising oil prices in the first decade of the 2000s, fuelling the rise of the urban middle class in the country’s largest cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

The ancient Roman political elite had bread and circuses. Putin gave his people tanks and shopping malls.

Neither the rich nor the poor wanted to cause a stir

Russian society was further split down the socioeconomic line. First, there were the poor people from the provinces, with towns and villages that look like they were teleported to our time directly from the Middle Ages.

Across them sat the self-centred urbanites, always on the hunt for the newest fancy cars or brand-name clothes.

Neither wanted to cause a stir. The poor wouldn’t because they were dependent on the state for meagre welfare checks.

Most also believed in the myth of a resurgent Russia and the better-off because they had mortgages and credits to pay, as debts from vacationing and shopping were constantly piling up.

The obscene bumper sticker “We can do this again”, putting the World War II triumph against Nazism in a demeaning sexual context, started to appear on middle-class cars around Moscow during this period.

Even the well-to-do liked to feel like they belong to a glorious state while frivolously travelling around the globe.

Who was left to protest back then when it mattered — back when Putin wasn’t a mad emperor but an aspiring autocrat?

A different Russia or another North Korea?

It was only the most spirited, activist-minded Russians who were extremely interested in politics and committed to protesting for a better Russia as a calling.

We saw these people in the streets even in 2022, when around 20,000 Russians were arrested for demonstrating against the war at the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s repressive apparatus got rid of almost all of them, too.

When Alexey Navalny’s team called for Russians to protest his unfair and targeted imprisonment on 4 June, only around a hundred activists in the whole country turned out to protest.

There won’t be any significant protests in Russia until the elites, at least in part, turn their backs on Putin and call the people to the streets.

If this moment comes — and it’s no longer a wild fantasy but a realistic possibility — we will see literally a million people in Red Square.

The alternative is turning Russia into a larger version of North Korea, isolated from the rest of the world and dependent on China.

If this scenario unfolds, we won’t be witnessing meaningful protests in Russia for years to come.

Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. He was formerly a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.

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

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Le Pen’s far right served as mouthpiece for the Kremlin, says French parliamentary report

Dogged by accusations of proximity to the Kremlin, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party had hoped to clear its name by setting up a parliamentary inquiry to investigate foreign interference in French politics. But a draft report on the committee’s findings, which was leaked to the press this week, shows the move backfired spectacularly, finding instead that Le Pen’s policy stances sometimes echo the “official language of Putin’s regime”.

After a six-month inquiry and more than 50 hearings, the cross-party parliamentary inquiry found that the National Rally (RN) party, formerly known as the National Front, had served as a “communication channel” for Russian power, notably supporting Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, according to the leaked report.  

The text, due to be published next week, was adopted on Thursday by eleven votes to five – to the dismay of the inquiry’s chair and instigator, RN lawmaker Jean-Philippe Tanguy, who promptly dismissed the process as a “farce”.

The vote came just days after Le Pen was grilled by members of the investigation, swearing under oath that she had no ties to the Kremlin while also reiterating her support for Moscow’s takeover of Crimea – which she referred to as a “reattachment”.  

That support is “visibly appreciated in Moscow”, wrote the report’s rapporteur Constance Le Grip, noting that the Russian press had given ample coverage to the far-right leader’s May 24 interview, “echoing with great satisfaction the assertion, in their view reaffirmed by Marine Le Pen, that Crimea is and always has been Russian”.   

Echoing Putin ‘word for word’ 

Twice a runner-up in France’s most recent presidential elections, Le Pen has in the past spoken admiringly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his nationalist rhetoric. Prior to last year’s invasion – and despite Russian incursions into Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas – she laughed off suggestions that he posed a threat to Europe. 

In her 218-page report, Le Grip, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, pointed to a “long-standing” link between Russia and the far-right party co-founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, noting that the “strategy of political and ideological rapprochement” with Moscow had “accelerated” since his daughter became leader of the party in 2011. 

The report details frequent contacts between party representatives and Russian officials, culminating in the warm welcome Le Pen received at the Kremlin ahead of France’s 2017 presidential election, complete with a photo op with Putin. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017, just weeks ahead of France’s presidential election. Mikhail Klimentyev, AFP

It also highlights the far-right leader’s “alignment” with “Russian discourse” at the time of Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the year the National Front obtained a loan from a bank close to the Kremlin. 

“All [Le Pen’s] comments on Crimea, reiterated during her inquiry hearing, repeat word for word the official language of Putin’s regime,” Le Grip wrote, noting that the National Rally had fiercely opposed then-president François Hollande’s decision to scrap the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia over its takeover of Crimea.  

The pro-Russian stance “softened” in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the centrist MP conceded, noting that Le Pen and her party had “unambiguously condemned” Russian aggression – though without changing tack on Crimea.    

The Kremlin’s payroll 

Despite Le Pen’s efforts to distance herself from Moscow, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine exacerbated scrutiny of her party’s links to Russia, handing her opponents a line of attack in the run-up to France’s presidential election later that year. 

During a bruising televised debate ahead of their April 24 presidential run-off, Macron launched a blistering attack on his far-right opponent, accusing her of effectively being on the Kremlin’s payroll owing to her party’s links with a Russian bank. 

“When you speak to Russia, you are not speaking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker,” Macron told Le Pen, arguing that her party’s loan from a Russian bank with links to the Kremlin made her “dependent on Vladimir Putin” and incapable of “defending French interests”.  

Le Pen has repeatedly argued that she had no choice but to seek creditors abroad because French banks are reluctant to deal with her party – some on ideological grounds, others due to the party’s chronically unstable finances. 

The controversial loan was once again in the spotlight during her audition last week, a testy, four-hour-long grilling that failed to produce evidence of a political service rendered in exchange for the credit. Likewise, Le Grip’s report dwells at length on the Russian loan, without demonstrating a return of favours. 

“There is nothing, not a shred of evidence that would prove Russian influence over the National Rally,” Le Pen told reporters on Thursday, as rumours about the leaked report began to swirl. “This report passes judgement on my political opinions, not on any form of foreign interference,” she added, blasting a “political trial”. 

>> Read more: Trump, Farage, Le Pen: Why the West’s right wing loves Vladimir Putin


By pushing for an inquiry late last year, the National Rally had hoped to deflect attention from its Moscow ties and put the focus on other parties’ links to foreign powers, whether Russia, the United States or China.  

Among the witnesses summoned to testify was François Fillon, the former conservative prime minister, who was quizzed on his role as an adviser to two Russian oil companies – one of them state-owned – after he quit politics in 2017. The former PM, who stepped down from both positions on February 25, the day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, testified that he “never took a single cent of Russian money”.  

Other witnesses included the head of the DGSI, France’s internal security agency, who told a closed hearing that French parliamentarians of all stripes were prime targets of Russian espionage.

Despite the National Rally’s best efforts to focus the attention on other parties, the inquiry frequently returned to figures from its own ranks – including EU lawmaker Thierry Mariani, a former conservative minister and longtime Putin admirer who, on a trip to Crimea in 2015, declared its annexation free and fair in line with Le Pen’s own stance on the matter. 

“The inquiry’s immediate political consequence is to highlight, once again, Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russian stance – particularly on the annexation of Crimea,” French daily Le Monde observed on Friday. 

Speaking to the newspaper, Tanguy, the National Rally lawmaker who chaired the inquiry, conceded that he had been “naïve” in expecting another outcome. He also claimed he had been “betrayed” by Le Grip.

As Greens’ lawmaker Julien Bayou quipped, “The (National Rally) launched this inquiry to clear its name, but ended up with a boomerang in the face.”   

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Moldova ramps up EU membership push amid fears of Russia-backed coup

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the central square of the capital on Sunday, waving flags and homemade placards in support of the country’s push to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

With Russia’s war raging just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this tiny Eastern European nation called the rally in an effort to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, almost a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at Chișinău’s presidential palace, as a column of her supporters marched past outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on beginning accession negotiations by the end of the year. We think we have enough support to move forward.”

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared that “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe!” The crowd, many holding Ukrainian flags and the gold-and-blue starred banner of the EU, let out a cheer. An orchestra on stage played the bloc’s anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years, you have taken decisive steps and now you have the responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready for integration into the single European market.”

However, the jubilant rally comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything it can to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-declared sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had disrupted a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Officials in Chișinău later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the claims.

“Despite previous efforts to stay neutral, Moldova is finding itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs — whether they want to be or not, they’re party of this broader conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There’s an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘southern Kaliningrad,’ putting in place a friendly regime that allows them to attack the Ukrainians’ flanks,” Dupuy said. “But this hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

Responding to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels last month announced it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to combat growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the terms of the Common Security and Defense Policy, will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to begin accession talks “as soon as possible” in order to protect Moldova from what she said were growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from across all of the main parties in the European Parliament have tabled a motion calling for the European Commission to start the negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership isn’t without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

At the same time, a frozen conflict over the breakaway region of Transnistria, in the east of Moldova, could complicate matters still further. The stretch of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been governed since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed there despite Chișinău demanding they leave. It’s also home to one of the Continent’s largest weapons stockpiles, with a reported 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will need to solve this before membership,” Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the country, told POLITICO.

“We do not know now what a solution could look like, but the fact that we do not have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

While she denied that Brussels had sent any official signals that Moldova’s accession would depend on Russian troops leaving the country, Sandu said that “we do believe that in the next months and years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict.”

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion — and in recent months has turned up the dial on its attacks on Sandu’s government.

A study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February found that while almost 54 percent of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, close to a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were split on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25 percent naming Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18 percent saying the U.S.

“Putin is not a fool,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name, shouting at passersby on the streets of the capital. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside of the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR Party has held counter-protests in several regional cities.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia send the cost of gas skyrocketing in what many see as an attempt at blackmail. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “contracted by 5.9 percent and inflation reached an average of 28.7 percent in 2022.”

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries, and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. With the process of EU membership set to take years, or even decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will stay the course in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons into her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We’ve been a part of the Russian world my whole life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.”

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Zelenskyy’s globetrotting diplomacy leaves Putin looking isolated

After a whirlwind week of diplomatic visits that has taken in the Vatican, Saudi Arabia, Europe’s capitals and Japan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s world tour has left his Russian counterpart looking increasingly isolated.

While the world awaits Ukraine’s spring battlefield offensive, leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy has launched a diplomatic one. In the span of a week, he’s dashed to Italy, the Vatican, Germany, France and Britain to shore up support for defending his country. Later on Saturday, he’s due at the G7 conference in Japan.

On Friday, he was in Saudi Arabia to meet with Arab leaders, some of whom are allies with Moscow, tweeting about his visit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was in the southern Russian city of Pyatigorsk, chairing a meeting with local officials, sitting at a large table at a distance from the other attendees.

He has faced unprecedented international isolation, with an International Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over his head and clouding the prospects of travelling to many destinations, including those viewed as Moscow’s allies.

With his invasion of Ukraine, “Putin took a gamble and lost really, really big time,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies. “He is an international pariah, really.”

It was only 10 years ago when Putin stood proudly among his peers at the time, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe, at a Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.

Russia has since been kicked out of the group, made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the US,  for illegally annexing Crimea in 2014.

Now it appears to be Ukraine’s turn in the spotlight.

There were conflicting messages from Kyiv about whether Zelenskyy would attend the G7 in Japan on Sunday. The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said on national television the president would be there, but the council later walked back those remarks, saying Zelenskyy would join via video link. The president’s office would not confirm either way for security reasons.

But whether in person or via video, it would be of great symbolic and geopolitical significance.

“It conveys the fact that the G7 continues to strongly support Ukraine,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s a visible marker of the continued commitment of the most highly industrialised and highly developed countries in the world.”

It also comes at a time when the optics are just not in the Kremlin’s favour.

There’s uncertainty over whether Putin can travel to South Africa in August for a summit of the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Moscow has long showcased the alliance as an alternative to the West’s global dominance, but this year it is already proving awkward for the Kremlin. South Africa, the host of the summit, is a signatory to the ICC and is obligated to comply with the arrest warrant on war crimes charges.

South Africa has not announced that Putin will definitely come to the summit but has been planning for his possible arrival. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed an inter-ministerial committee, led by Deputy President Paul Mashatile, to consider South Africa’s options with regard to its ICC commitment over Putin’s possible trip.

While it is highly unlikely the Russian president would be arrested there if he decides to go, the public debate about whether he can is in itself “an unwelcome development whose impact should not be underestimated,” according to Gould-Davies.

Then there are Moscow’s complicated relations with its own neighbours. Ten days ago, Putin projected the image of solidarity, with leaders of Armenia, Belarus and Central Asian states standing beside him at a Victory Day military parade on Red Square.

This week, however, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan flocked to China and met with leader Xi Jinping at a summit that highlighted the erosion of Russia’s influence in the region as Beijing seeks to make economic inroads into Central Asia.

Xi is using the opportunity “of a weakened Russia, a distracted Russia, almost a pariah-state Russia to increase (China’s) influence in the region,” Fallon said.

Putin’s effort this month to shore up more friends in the South Caucasus by scrapping visa requirements for Georgian nationals and lifting a four-year ban on direct flights to the country also didn’t appear to go as smoothly as the Kremlin may have hoped.

The first flight that landed Friday in Georgia was met with protests, and the country’s pro-Western president has decried the move as a provocation.

Zelenskyy’s ongoing world tour can be seen as a success on many levels.

Invitations from other world leaders is a sign they think Ukraine is “going to come out of the war in good shape,” said Phillips P. O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Otherwise, “it simply wouldn’t be happening,” he said. “No one would want to be around a leader they think is going to be defeated and a country that’s going to collapse.”

By contrast, the ICC warrant might make it harder for leaders even to visit Putin in Moscow because “it’s not a good look to visit an indicted war criminal,” Gould-Davies said.

European leaders promised him an arsenal of missiles, tanks and drones, and even though no commitment has been made on fighter jets – something Kyiv has wanted for months – a conversation about finding ways to do it has begun.

His appearance Friday at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian port on the Red Sea, highlighted Kyiv’s effort to spread its plight for support far and wide, including in some countries whose sympathies are with Russia.

In addition to Zelenskyy, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also welcomed Syrian President Bashar Assad at the summit after a 12-year suspension – something analysts say aligns with Moscow’s interests.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who focuses on Russia’s policy in the Middle East, called it “another testament to the fact that Russia is not isolated globally for its invasion of Ukraine, that the Middle East is one part of the world where Russia is able to find avenues to avoid global isolation – both ideological isolation but also economic isolation.”

She added that Zelenskyy and his government deserve credit for “in recognizing that they need to reach out more to improve their diplomatic efforts in this part of the world and other parts of the world where the Russian narrative resonates.”

Kyiv could expect that “this is the beginning of a larger shift in perception that could eventually translate into potential support,” Borshchevskaya said.

Similarly, the Ukrainian president’s participation in the G7 summit is “a message to the rest of the world, to Russia and beyond, and the so-called Global South,” Gould-Davies believes.

There is a concern in the West over the extent to which some major developing economies – Brazil, South Africa and, to a degree, India – “are not criticising, not condemning Russia and indeed in various ways are helping to mitigate the impact of sanctions on Russia,” he said.

“Collectively, economically, they matter. So there is, I think, this need felt for a renewed diplomatic campaign to bring some of these most important states into the kind of the Western way of looking at these things,” Gould-Davies said.

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Everyone is talking about Wagner. Who are Russia’s other mercenaries?

Russia’s Wager mercenary group often hits the headlines. But who are the country’s other guns for hire? And what are they doing?

The Russian Wagner mercenary group often steals the limelight, thanks largely to its outspoken and publicity-crazed boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

But there are others.

Many of Russia’s rich and powerful own private military companies (PMC), with more coming out of the woodwork all the time. They recruit an eclectic mix of ex-special forces, prisoners, extremists, vagrants, adrenaline junkies and everything in between, operating all around the world.

Elites have “realised that having a PMC can get the benefits from the Kremlin,” Anton Shekhovtsov, Director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity told Euronews. “Because if you contribute to the war effort [in Ukraine], you will be rewarded.”

Putin-loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, who leads the Chechen Republic, is reportedly planning to create a PMC on top of his paramilitary of “TikTok warriors” notorious for filming themselves purportedly fighting in Ukraine, though doubts remain about how genuine this is.

Energy giant Gazprom has also allegedly created two private militaries, known as Fakel (torch) and Plamya (flame), which are tasked with protecting overseas assets in places like Syria and Ukraine.

“They are supposedly just defending pipelines, although we simply don’t know,” said Dr Stephen Hall, lecturer of Russian politics at the University of Bath.

Yet, PMCs don’t only belong to Russia’s elites.

The Orthodox Brotherhood mercenary group, linked to the powerful Orthodox Church, is reportedly fighting in Ukraine to protect Christain Russia from a decadent West that has hijacked Kyiv, Hall told Euronews.

ENOT meanwhile is a collection of far-right, ultra-nationalist guns for hire, battling in Ukraine since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took up arms in Ukraine’e east.

Though motivated by a “virulent imperialism” seeing Ukraine as belonging to Russia, Shekhovtsov believes the group is only fighting as it was able to “monetise their ideology”, picking up support from local businesses in the breakaway provinces.

“They just making money,” he claimed, adding the Kremlin was more than happy to “get rid” of these violent extremists, preventing them from stirring up trouble back home.

Founder of ENOT Igor Leonidovich Mangushev – an infamous nationalist who made a public speech holding what he said was a Ukrainian fighter’s skull – was killed in February from an “execution style” gunshot in Russian-occupied Ukraine.

ENOT was shut down in 2019, with Shekhovtsovck claiming Mangushev was likely killed by the Russians.

‘Russia’s mercenary groups are tied to the state’

Though nominally independent, Hall said PMCs can only exist with the Kremlin’s blessing. They are in fact illegal under Russian law, which forbids the “recruitment, training and financing” of a mercenary.

“They will always do what the state asks,” he told Euronews, pointing out that many were deeply intertwined with the FSB, Russia’s secret services.

“The reason why Wagner group is the largest [mercenary group] is that it had the best sponsorship, not only financial but also political protection,” added Shekhovtsov. “ENOT were not able to find a good group of elites who would protect them”, suggesting this is why they were ultimately destroyed.

For the Kremlin, such shadowy forces are useful for “plausibility deniability”, said Hall.

They allow the state to engage in dirtier, more sketchy activities, which it can deny because they are technically private. Mercenaries are also much less regulated than conventional armies, giving them greater leeway to engage in criminal behaviour.

Recognising it had relied on soldiers of fortune throughout its history, Halls claims Moscow was inspired by the US’s use of the now-defunct Blackwater mercenary group in Iraq, which gained notoriety after massacring Iraqi civilians in 2007.

“It gave the Kremlin an idea,” he continued.

Distinct from the conventional armed forces, mercenaries have helped mask Russian losses in Ukraine, since they seldom tallied in official casualty counts.

“If mercenaries die in Ukraine, it is unfortunate. But the Kremlin does not have to publicise these issues,” Hall explained. “As the Soviet Union learnt during the Afghan War of the 80s, the public tends to get quite upset when their boys come home in body bags.”

The Patriot mercenary group is an example of this, offering Russia no strings-attached military might.

Founded in 2018, it is controlled by the Ministry of Defence and consists of many ex-members of Russian special forces Spetsnaz, who earn a “very high by Russian standards” €5,600 a month, according to Hall. However, they reportedly do not receive pensions or injury benefits.

Patriot is the Russian military answer to the “growing popularity and bargaining power” of Wager, a “pioneer of the entire mercenary movement”, says Shekhovtsov.

Their effectiveness on the battlefield remains to be seen, but mercenaries have not left a big mark on the war so far, according to the US-based Insitute for the Study of War.

‘Mafia groups fighting one another’

Mercenary groups are gaining considerable power in Russia, commanding large numbers of men and military resources. Some are engaged in economic activities, such as mining in Africa, that only strengthens their position.

“As long as they are not crossing red lines, the state is fine with them because they are beneficial,” Shekhovtsov told Euronews. “But if they interfere with the political decisions of stakeholders, they can get shut down.”

For now, he said the Kremlin remains powerful enough to shut them down should they get out of line.

Still, this may not always be so.

“It will depend on the course of the war. But with each military defeat on the battlefield, the Russian state will start losing even further its control over these various armed groups,” Shekhovtsov explained.

Though Putin was still firmly in control, he cited the example of Wagern boss Yevgeny Prigozhin openly defying the Kremlin, believing this would have been “unimaginable” a year before.

“Figures within the regime are increasingly worried about the future,” said Hall, pointing to criticism of the war and Putin from both Priogzhin and Chechen Leader Kadyrov. “By creating these private military companies the Kremlin has opened up a black hole for itself. They aren’t beholden to the state because the state isn’t paying them.”

“If Putin loses power, there’s going to be like cats fighting in a bag. You’re talking Game of Thrones but with nuclear weapons”.

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Zelensky makes surprise visit to Paris for talks on Ukraine’s urgent needs

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to Paris for talks Sunday night with French President Emmanuel Macron, extending a multi-stop European tour that has elicited fresh pledges of military support as his country gears up for a counteroffensive against Russian occupation forces. The two leaders will discuss Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs. Follow our blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

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

05:00am: Top Chinese envoy to visit Ukraine, Russia on ‘peace’ mission

A top Chinese envoy will begin a tour of Ukraine, Russia and other European cities on Monday in a trip Beijing says is aimed at discussing a “political settlement” to the Ukraine crisis.

Li Hui, China’s special representative for Eurasian affairs and former ambassador to Russia, will also visit Poland, France,Germany on the multi-day trip, the foreign ministry announced Friday without providing a detailed schedule.

“The visit … is a testament to China’s efforts towards promoting peace talks, and fully demonstrates China’s firm commitment to peace,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing.

03:34am: Ukraine says captured over ‘ten enemy positions’ in Bakhmut

Kyiv said Sunday that Ukrainian forces had captured more than ten Russian positions on the outskirts of the frontline city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

“Today our units have captured more than ten enemy positions in the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut,” Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said on social media.

“Enemy soldiers of various units have been captured,” she said.

“Anyone who knows the real situation and is there now understands the gravity of what is happening,” Malyar added.

03:00am: Wagner head offered to reveal Russian troop locations to Ukraine

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary force, offered to reveal the position of Russian troops to the Ukranian government, the Washington Post reported on Sunday, citing leaked US intelligence documents.

Wagner’s soldiers have been at the forefront of a bloody Russian offensive to take the city of Bakhmut. In exchange for Ukraine withdrawing its soldiers from the area, Prigozhin in January offered to tell its intelligence service the positions of Russian forces, the Post reported.

The paper said Ukraine rejected the offer.

12:57am: France promises Ukraine more light tanks, armoured cars

France on Monday announced dozens more light tanks and armoured vehicles for several battalions of Ukraine’s army, together with training for the soldiers using them.

In their joint statement, French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also called for fresh sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

12:02am: G7 leaders to target Russian energy, trade in new sanctions steps

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) nations plan to tighten sanctions on Russia at their summit in Japan this week, with steps aimed at energy and exports aiding Moscow’s war effort, said officials with direct knowledge of the discussions.

New measures announced by the leaders during the May 19-21 meetings will target sanctions evasion involving third countries, and seek to undermine Russia’s future energy production and curb trade that supports Russia’s military, the people said.

Separately, US officials also expect G7 members will agree to adjust their approach to sanctions so that, at least for certain categories of goods, all exports are automatically banned unless they are on a list of approved items.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last month a G7 move to ban exports to the country would cause Moscow to terminate a Black Sea grain deal that enables vital exports of grain from Ukraine.

7:32pm: Ukraine’s Zelensky makes surprise visit to Paris for talks with French President Macron

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to Paris for talks Sunday night with French President Emmanuel Macron, extending a multi-stop European tour that has elicited fresh pledges of military support as his country gears up for a counteroffensive against Russian occupation forces.

France dispatched a plane to pick up Zelensky in Germany, where he met Chancellor Olaf Scholz earlier Sunday. Macron’s office said the two leaders will hold talks over dinner and that Macron will “reaffirm France and Europe’s unwavering support to reestablish Ukraine in its legitimate rights and to defend its fundamental interests.”

They’ll also discuss Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs and “the more long term perspectives for a return to peace in Europe,” Macron’s office said. FRANCE 24 journalist Carys Garland provides more information below:

6:19pm: Russia becoming a vassal of China amid Ukraine war, says Macron

Russia has “already lost geopolitically” its war in Ukraine war and is effectively becoming a vassal state of China, French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview published Sunday.

“De facto, it has entered a form of subservience with regards to China and has lost its access to the Baltic, which was critical, because it prompted the decision by Sweden and Finland to join NATO,” Macron told the Opinion newspaper.

“This was unthinkable just two years ago. So it’s already a geopolitical defeat,” Macron said ahead of a visit to Paris by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky later Sunday.

5:33pm: Ukraine says captured over ‘ten enemy positions’ in Bakhmut, says ministry

Kyiv said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces have captured more than ten Russian positions on the outskirts of the frontline city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

“Today our units have captured more than ten enemy positions in the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut,” Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said on social media. “Enemy soldiers of various units have been captured.”

“Enemy soldiers of various units have been captured,” she said.

“Anyone who knows the real situation and is there now understands the gravity of what is happening,” Malyar added.

5:27pm: Ukraine fighting for European values, freedom, says EU chief

The Ukrainian people are fighting for European freedom and values, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday at a ceremony in Germany where President Volodymyr Zelensky received the prestigious Charlemagne prize for fostering European unity.

“President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for the values and the obligation that this prize embodies,” von der Leyen said.

“And in doing so, they are also fighting for our own freedom and our values. Democracy and the rule of law, free speech and the freedom to create your own destiny.”

5:02pm: War shows Ukraine is ‘part of European family’, says Scholz

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shakes hands before being awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen 2023 on May 14, 2023 in Aachen, western Germany.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz shakes hands before being awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen 2023 on May 14, 2023 in Aachen, western Germany. © Federico Gambarini, AFP

Russia’s war in Ukraine has made clear that the country is “part of our European family”, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Sunday at an award ceremony honouring President Volodymyr Zelensky for services to European unity.

“All across Europe, the war has cemented one clear realisation: Ukraine is part of our European family,” Scholz said at the award ceremony for the Charlemagne prize in the German city of Aachen, where Zelensky was in attendance.

“Russia’s war of aggression has brought the European Union and Ukraine closer than ever before,” Scholz added.

4:14pm: Ukraine’s Zelensky expected in Paris later on Sunday, French media

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to arrive in Paris later on Sunday, BFM TV, Le Figaro and Agence France Presse reported.

Le Figaro said Zelensky would be greeted at the Vélizy-Villacoublay airport by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

Officials at the French presidential office could not be immediately reached for comment on the reports.

12:45pm: Ukraine ‘not attacking Russian territory’, Zelensky says

Ukraine has no plans to attack targets inside Russia, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in Berlin on Sunday after receiving a huge new military aid package ahead of an expected counter-offensive.

“We are not attacking Russian territory,” Zelensky told reporters in Berlin. “We have neither the time nor the strength to do so and we have no weapons left with which to do so. We are preparing a counterattack to de-occupy the illegitimately conquered territories,” he added.

12:44pm: Russia says two military commanders killed in east Ukraine

Russia said Sunday that two of its military commanders had been killed in combat near the frontline hotspot of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

In a rare announcement of its losses on the battlefield, the Russian defence ministry said in a statement that the commander of the 4th motorised rifle brigade, Vyacheslav Makarov, and Yevgeny Brovko, deputy commander of the Army Corps for military-political work, had been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine.

12:40pm: Zelensky urges Germany to back fighter jet deliveries

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday urged Germany to back its bid to obtain fighter jets from the West, as it eyes a counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion.

During a visit to Berlin, Zelensky said he would broach the issue with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, adding that “this is not an easy question”.

“We’re now working on creating a coalition of fighter jets… Today I will appeal to the German side to support Ukraine in this coalition,” he said.

12:28pm: Ukraine troops, Western arms targeted in strikes, Russia says

Moscow said Sunday that Russian forces had struck Western arm depots and Ukrainian troops in the western city of Ternopil and the eastern town of Petropavlivka.

Russia’s armed forces “delivered a strike with high-precision long-range air and sea-based weapons at the points of deployment of the Ukrainian armed forces,” the defence ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

“Places of storage of ammunition, weapons and military equipment received from Western countries” were also struck, it said.

12:18pm: Ukraine ready for peace but cannot mean freezing conflict, Scholz says

Ukraine is ready for peace but that cannot mean freezing the conflict and accepting a deal dictated by Russia, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday.

“Russia has to pull back its troops, it will not work any other way,” Scholz said during Zelensky’s first visit to Germany since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

11:53am: Berlin will support Ukraine ‘as long as needed’, Scholz tells Zelensky

Germany will support Ukraine as long as needed, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Sunday as President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Berlin for the first time since Russia’s invasion.

“I have said it many times, and I repeat it here today: we will support you for as long as it is necessary,” Scholz said during a joint press conference.

10:52am: Zelensky lauds Germany as ‘true friend and reliable ally’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday thanked Berlin for its backing in Kyiv’s battle against Moscow troops, calling Germany a “true friend” during his first visit since Russia’s invasion.

“In the most challenging time in the modern history of Ukraine, Germany proved to be our true friend and reliable ally, which stands decisively side-by-side with the Ukrainian people in the struggle to defend freedom and democratic values,” he wrote in the guestbook at the German president’s official residence.

8:56am: Zelensky meets President Steinmeier at start of Germany visit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday met his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on his first trip to Germany since Russia’s invasion.

Zelensky signed the guestbook at the Bellevue Palace, before heading into talks with Steinmeier. He is expected to meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz later Sunday.

Zelensky’s visit comes as he seeks further arms deliveries to help his country fend off the Russian invasion, and funds to rebuild what’s been destroyed by more than a year of devastating conflict.

8:53am: Ukraine repels latest overnight drone and missile attack

Ukrainian forces intercepted and destroyed three missiles and 25 drones overnight in the latest aerial attack on the country since the beginning of May, Ukraine‘s air force said on Sunday.

Russia has increased the number of missile and drone attacks this month, which Kyiv attributes to Moscow’s fear of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Russia “attacked Ukraine from different directions with Shahed attack drones, Kalibr missiles from ships in the Black Sea, (and) cruise missiles from Tu-95 strategic aircraft,” the air force said in a statement.

At least two people were injured in the western region of Ternopil, a senior Ukrainian presidential official said on the Telegram messaging app.

Ukrainian authorities do not report hits on critical infrastructure or military facilities.

1:04am: Ukraine’s Zelensky arrives in Germany for visit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced his arrival in Berlin for an official visit Sunday, having flown out of Rome following meetings with Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“Already in Berlin,” he wrote on Twitter. “Weapons. Powerful package. Air defense. Reconstruction. EU. NATO. Security.”

  • Key developments from Saturday, May 13:

While on a visit to Rome on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he met with Pope Francis in the Vatican and thanked him for focusing on the plight of millions of Ukrainians after the Russian invasion. Zelensky also met with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who promised Italy’s full support to Ukraine in its efforts to repel Russia’s “brutal and unjust aggression”.

Zelensky announced on Saturday that he would be travelling to Germany on Sunday to meet with leaders of Europe’s top economy, a government source in Berlin told AFP. The trip comes just after Berlin said it was preparing a new weapons package worth €2.7 billion ($3 billion) for Kyiv, including tanks, armoured vehicles and air-defence systems.

Read yesterday’s live blog to see how the day’s events unfolded.

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(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP & Reuters)

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Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results.

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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Russia acknowledges retreat north of Bakhmut as Ukraine claims advances

Moscow acknowledged on Friday that its forces had fallen back north of Ukraine’s battleground city of Bakhmut after a new Ukrainian offensive, in a retreat that the head of Russia’s Wagner private army called a “rout”. The rare acknowledgement came after Ukraine said its forces had made significant advances around the embattled eastern city, which has been the epicentre of fighting with Russia for months. Read our live blog to see how all the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

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

8:48pm: South Africa says US ambassador apologised following Russia allegations

South Africa‘s foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, had “admitted that he crossed a line” and “apologised unreservedly” after he said a Russian ship had picked up weapons in South Africa last year, causing a diplomatic uproar on Thursday.

Following the US ambassador’s statements, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he would appoint an independent inquiry to look into the allegations.

6:15pm: Moscow acknowledges retreat north of Bakhmut, Wagner boss calls it a ‘rout’

Moscow has acknowledged that its forces have fallen back north of Bakhmut, in the latest report of Ukrainian advances around the battleground city.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine had launched an assault north of Bakhmut with more than 1,000 troops and up to 40 tanks, a scale that if confirmed would amount to the biggest Ukrainian offensive since November.

The Russians had repelled 26 attacks but troops in one area had fallen back to regroup in more favourable positions near the Berkhivka reservoir northwest of Bakhmut, Konashenkov said.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner forces that have led the campaign in the city, said in an audio message: “What Konashenkov described, unfortunately, is called ‘a rout’ and not a regrouping”.

In a separate video message, Prigozhin said the Ukrainians had seized high ground overlooking Bakhmut and opened the main highway leading into the city from the West.

“The loss of the Berkhivka reservoir – the loss of this territory they gave up – that’s 5 sq km, just today,” Prigozhin said.

4:10pm: UK ‘disappointed’ at Eurovision ban on Zelensky message

The UK government has hit out at European broadcasters for banning a message by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at this weekend’s Eurovision final, for fear of politicising the event.

The English city of Liverpool is hosting Saturday’s musical extravaganza on behalf of last year’s winner, Ukraine, and has decked out its streets in yellow and blue.

But the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said “strict rules” prevented it from granting the Ukrainian leader’s request to speak by video, arguing the contest is “non-political”.

“The prime minister believes it would be fitting for President Zelensky to address the event, and we’re disappointed by the decision from the European Broadcasting Union,” Rishi Sunak‘s spokesman said. “The values and freedoms that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for are not political, they’re fundamental.”

3:05pm: Russian police launch anti-drone unit following Kremlin incident

Police in the Russian city of St. Petersburg have created a new anti-drone unit to detect unmanned aerial vehicles following a purported drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month.

The unit launched on May 9 during the annual World War Two Victory Day celebrations on St. Petersburg’s Palace Square, the city’s interior ministry has said.

Its purpose is to “ensure the protection of public order” during large public events, Roman Uvarov, the department’s head, said in a video message.

The unit will include officers armed with sniper rifles and carbines, groups trained to neutralise unmanned aerial vehicles, and mobile patrols to detain those suspected of operating drones.

1:25pm: Russia staves off Ukrainian advances along 95 km front near Bakhmut

Russia said Friday it had repelled Ukrainian attacks along a 95-kilometre (60 mile) stretch of front near the symbolic city of Bakhmut, as an anticipated Ukrainian offensive looms.

“In the tactical direction of Soledar, the enemy yesterday carried out offensive operations along the entire line of contact, which is more than 95 kilometres long,” the defence ministry said, adding that Ukraine had deployed “more than 1,000 military personnel and up to 40 tanks”.

“All the attacks of the units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have been repelled,” the defence ministry added.

1:07pm: Zelensky to meet Italian president in Rome on Saturday

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected in Rome on Saturday for talks with his Italian counterpart, an official told AFP Friday, with a meeting with Pope Francis also possible.

“We confirm that this meeting will take place tomorrow,” a spokesman for Italian President Sergio Mattarella said when asked about reports of a meeting with Zelensky.

It would be the first visit by Zelensky to EU and NATO member Italy since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

11:58am: Black Sea grain deal renewal issue remains unresolved, Kremlin says

The Kremlin said on Friday that there was nothing new to report after talks on possible renewal of the Black Sea grain deal in Istanbul and that a potential conversation between the leaders of Turkey and Russia would not help clinch an agreement.

In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that only full implementation of the deal would facilitate its renewal.

Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said earlier on Friday that parties to the Black Sea grain pact were nearing a deal to extend it.

10:52am: Ukraine’s Zelensky banned from adressing Eurovision contest

This weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest will have Ukrainian flags, Ukrainian musicians and Ukrainian fans  but not the country’s wartime leader.

Organisers rejected a request from President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a video address to the final of the pan-continental music competition on Saturday. He was expected to urge the world continue its support for Ukraine’s fight to repel Russian invasion.

The European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision, said that letting Zelensky participate would breach “the nonpolitical nature of the event”.

9:45am: China to send special envoy to Ukraine, Russia

China will send a special envoy to Ukraine, Russia and other European nations from Monday, Beijing said on Friday, to discuss a “political settlement” to the war in Ukraine.

“From May 15, Ambassador Li Hui, special representative of the Chinese government for Eurasian Affairs, will visit Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia to communicate with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular press conference.

9:28am: Ukraine claims it has advanced two kilometres in Bakhmut

Ukraine said Friday that its forces had made significant advances around the embattled city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, which has been the epicentre of fighting with Russia for months.

“The enemy has suffered great losses of manpower. Our defence forces advanced two kilometres (around one mile) near Bakhmut. We did not lose a single position in Bakhmut this week,” Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said in a statement on social media.

1:30am: Russia denies reports of Ukrainian breakthroughs along front lines

Russia’s defence ministry on Thursday denied reports that Ukrainian forces had broken through in various places along the front lines and said the military situation was under control.

Moscow reacted after Russian military bloggers, writing on the Telegram messaging app, reported what they said were Ukrainian advances north and south of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, with some suggesting a long-awaited counteroffensive by pro-Kyiv forces had started.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had earlier said the offensive had yet to start.

“Statements circulated by individual Telegram channels about ‘defence breakthroughs’ that took place in different areas along the line of military contact do not correspond to reality,” the Russian defence ministry said in a Telegram post.

“The overall situation in the area of the special military operation is under control,” it said in a statement, using the Kremlin’s description of the war in Ukraine.

The fact the Russian ministry felt obliged to release the statement reflects what Moscow acknowledges is a “very difficult” military operation.

  • Key developments from Thursday, May 12:

Britain on Thursday became the first country to begin supplying Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles, which will allow Kyiv’s forces to hit Russian troops and supply dumps deep behind the front lines.

Meanwhile Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country’s military needed more time to prepare an anticipated counteroffensive aimed at opening a new chapter in the war.

Officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations on Thursday discussed recent UN proposals on a deal allowing the safe Black Sea export of Ukraine grain, which Moscow has threatened to quit on May 18 over obstacles to its own grain and fertiliser exports.

Read yesterday’s live blog to see how the day’s events unfolded

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Wagner threatens Bakhmut pullout over ammunition spat with Russian army

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russian paramilitary group Wagner, on Friday threatened to pull his fighters from the front line in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine starting May 10, saying ammunition shortages meant they faced “senseless death”. Russia has incurred significant losses in Bakhmut since starting its offensive there in August. 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.

5:55pm: Russian court orders arrest of theatre director, says state media

A Moscow court on Friday ordered the arrest of theatre director Yevgeniya Berkovich on charges of “justifying terrorism” over an award-winning play about Russian women recruited online to marry radical Islamists in Syria.

The RIA Novosti news agency said the court ordered her to remain in custody until July 4. The case has sent shockwaves through the Russian arts community and comes as Moscow cracks down on dissent during its Ukraine campaign.

4:22pm: Kyiv and most Ukrainian regions announce air alerts

Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and most Ukrainian regions announced air alerts on Friday, officials said.

The number of air alerts has risen sharply in recent days, and Kyiv along has issued six alerts in the last three days warning of Russian attacks.

3:28pm: Russia orders partial evacuation near Ukraine front line

Russia on Friday ordered the evacuation of families with children and of the elderly from Russian-held frontline areas in southern Ukraine because of an increase in shelling from the Ukrainian side.

“In the past few days, the enemy has stepped up shelling… There will be a temporary evacuation” from 18 villages and towns, the Russian-installed head of the Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, wrote on social media.

2:41pm: Funeral held in Ukraine for American killed in action

Soldiers from the International Legion of Ukraine said farewell Friday to an American military veteran they served with, who was killed a month ago in the fierce struggle to prevent the eastern city of Bakhmut from falling into Russian hands.

In a funeral service at Kyiv’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, Ukrainian regular army troops bore the Ukrainian-flag-draped coffin of Chris Campbell while about three dozen members of the International Legion looked on. After folding the flag, they presented it to Ivanna Sanina, Campbell’s Ukrainian wife.

The Florida native is one of least nine Americans now known to have been killed in fighting in Ukraine, including another last month in Bakhmut.

2:09pm: Ukraine says Russia deploying Wagner fighters to Bakhmut from along front line

A senior Ukrainian official said on Friday Russia was bringing Wagner mercenary fighters from along the front line to Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, and that Moscow wanted to capture the city in time for its May 9 celebrations of Soviet Victory Day.

“The Russians are inclined towards symbolism and their key historic myth is May 9 and they really have set the objective of taking control of Bakhmut by this date,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Ukrainian television.

“We are now seeing them pulling (fighters) from the entire offensive line where the Wagner fighters were, they are pulling (them) to the Bakhmut direction,” she said.

1:35pm: ‘Dramatic escalation’ in feud between Prigozhin, Russian military

As head of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin threatened on Friday to pull his troops out of the protracted battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut next week, FRANCE 24 international affairs commentator Douglas Herbert gave his analysis.

“There is never a dull moment with this man,” he said. “He has been at the head of a brutal and atrocious squad of private mercenaries in Bakhmut, waging the longest and bloodiest chapter in this war around that city. Just a few weeks ago, Prigozhin was bombastically claiming that his forces controlled 80 percent of the city. Now today we get a dramatic statement from him where he’s threatening the pull out those forces from Bakhmut on May 10. Why? For a lack of support from the military brass […] in Moscow.”

>> Read more: Wagner Group’s bloody year in Ukraine: From murder squad to cannon fodder

” …This is really the latest chapter, [a] dramatic […] escalation in what has been a simmering on-and-off feud between Prigozhin’s private mecenaries and the Russian military leadership,” Herbert continued.

‘Dramatic escalation’ in feud between Wagner group, Russian military (2023) © France 24

12:27pm: Shipments from Ukraine slowing as Black Sea grain deal deadline nears

The pace of shipments from Ukraine under a UN-backed initiative has slowed as concerns grow over ships getting stuck if a deal is not renewed later this month, according to sources and data.

Russia, which is one of the key parties involved, said it will keep talking although Moscow has threatened to quit on May 18, which has created more uncertainty for traders and shipping companies trying to plan ahead.

Under the accord, Ukraine has been able to export some 29.5 million tonnes of agricultural products, including 14.9 million tonnes of corn and 8.1 million tonnes of wheat.

10:27am: Wagner chief threatens to pull Bakhmut fighters over ammunition shortage

The head of Russian paramilitary group Wagner on Friday threatened to pull his fighters from the front line in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine on May 10, saying ammunition shortages meant they faced “senseless death”.

 “On May 10, 2023 we will have to hand over our positions in Bakhmut to units of the defence ministry and withdraw Wagner units to rear camps to lick our wounds,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a written statement on his Telegram channel.

10:01am: Russia’s Lavrov says Kremlin drone incident was ‘hostile act’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Wednesday’s drone incident at the Kremlin was a “hostile act” and that Russia would respond with “concrete actions”.

Russia has accused Ukraine of firing drones at the Kremlin in an attempt to kill President Vladimir Putin, and said the United States was behind the purported attack. Ukraine has denied that, and the White House has dismissed Russian “lies”.

“It was clearly a hostile act, it is clear that the Kyiv terrorists could not have committed it without the knowledge of their masters,” Lavrov told a press conference in India.


A Ukrainian delegate punched a Russian delegate in the face during a gathering of Black Sea nations in the Turkish capital on Thursday, after his Ukrainian flag was snatched away to stop him from photobombing a video interview with Russia’s lead delegate.

Olesandr Marikovski posted a video of himself thumping the Russian and retrieving the blue and yellow flag on his Facebook page. The incident took place in a hallway of the parliament building, where the Organisation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) assembly was being held.

Earlier in the day, some Ukrainian delegates scuffled with security officers who had tried to pull them away as they staged a protest, shouting and holding their flags next to Russia’s lead delegate as she tried to address the assembly.

6:54am: New drone attack causes fire at Russia’s Ilsky oil refinery, TASS reports

A drone attack on the Ilsky oil refinery in southern Russia, the second in as many days, has caused a fire, TASS news agency reported on Friday, citing emergency services.

Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency also reported that there were no casualties following the Friday’s incident, while the fire had been put out.

  • Key developments from Thursday, May 4:

The White House on Thursday said Russia was ‘lying’ over claims the US aided Ukraine in an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin and denied any US involvement in the incident.

Earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a visit to The Hague, where the International Criminal Court (ICC) is based, that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be brought to justice for his war in Ukraine.

Read yesterday’s live blog to see how the day’s events unfolded

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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In Ukraine, it’s not hatred they feel, its wrath

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

“We were invisible before, and to become visible is a huge step,” historian Olena Dzhedzhora said, as we discussed how Ukraine has drawn the attention of the rest of Europe and the United States.

The dignified, gray-haired historian joined the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv as it was being founded in 2002 — the first Catholic university to open anywhere in the former Soviet Union — just 11 years after the country declared independence. And since Russia’s invasion, Dzhedzhora, an archeologist-turned-medievalist, has been busy making darkness visible, along with around 30 volunteers — students, lecturers and others — who’ve been video recording and transcribing war testimonies gathered from people of all walks of life in Ukraine.

Last year, Lviv became a sort of Noah’s Ark, crowded with the displaced. And Dzhedzhora’s university stopped functioning for months — sheltering war refugees, feeding them, collecting medicine and raising cash for those who wanted to move west as Europe opened its doors.

“When I looked in their eyes, or talked with them, I had a feeling that I must capture their stories somehow,” she said. “We started to listen to these people and, with their permission, film them. Right now, we have 157 long video interviews and are busy translating them. They include volunteers, drivers, military men, medical personnel, people who teach and who make art and play music, and also those who experienced Russian occupation,” she added.

The project set out with two aims — to record war testimony for posterity, and to show the wider world what’s happening to Ukrainians. “The challenge, initially, for us, personally, was that none of us had any experience interviewing people suffering deep trauma. We have always stayed away from children because we fear retraumatizing them,” she said. “I am the only historian in the group, but all of us are very good listeners.”

Discussing the testimonies, Dzhedzhora remarked that “people say funny things in the interviews; they say very deep things, and they say very unexpected things. Some people, after a couple of months, reread their interviews and say, ‘Did I say that? That’s very interesting. I already forgot about that.’ People often forget or repress their first reactions to trauma.”

And she teared up recalling some of their stories — one, of a deeply traumatized 45-year-old woman who endured the three-month-long siege of Mariupol, and remained there during the early days of Russia’s occupation before being able to flee. “At first, she didn’t want to talk, saying she couldn’t, but eventually she did, and what most shocked the woman was how some of her neighbors welcomed the Russians, and started to point out people who were Ukrainian-oriented. They were among the earliest also to loot apartments,” Dzhedzhora said. And to the woman’s disgust, she later saw one of the looters interviewed on Ukrainian television, claiming to be a patriot.

Another painful interview for the historian was with artist Ivanka Krypyakevych — the partner of Mykhailo Dymyd, a professor at the university — on the loss of their oldest son, Atemi. Atemi died fighting in Donetsk in June, and Ivanka gave her testimony two days after his funeral. “Yes, I knew him, and know the family well. Atemi was such an excellent, such an interesting young man,” Dzhedzhora added.

Through these experiences, she said she found most interviewees didn’t harbor personal hatred toward Russians. “They understand that would be very destructive for themselves. So it’s not the hatred — it’s something I don’t even know how to express it in English.” Then it came to her: “It is more Biblical. Something much more powerful than hatred. It is wrath,” she said.

Righteous judgement.

Back in Kyiv, I then sat down with a young American, a veteran of the U.S. army named Eric, who’s seen plenty of war and joined the international legion of foreign volunteers in April. “When the invasion happened, I was like, ‘the Russians suck’ . . . But I thought it is not my fight. Then they started the terror bombing and attacking malls, hospitals and schools and stuff like that, and I thought, ‘I can do something about this.’”

Eric served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he admits he enlisted to fight in Ukraine for prosaic reasons too. He left the army realizing that with America’s “forever wars” winding down, he might not see action again. “I do miss getting shot at. That was enjoyable when it started happening again,” he said.

“I know what I am. I’m a soldier. I’m a dude who goes and fights wars, kills people, all that stuff, gets paid for it. It’s, like, objectively speaking, not a morally healthy thing. But there’s still standards, there’s rules, laws. There’s like a code, and you’re supposed to adhere to [it]. I mean, it’s war. It’s brutal. There’s none of this, like, ‘Yeah, man, you know, as long as they fly a white flag.’ A lot of times, if somebody’s trying to surrender, you’re not going to realize that. You see movement. You see a guy. You shoot,” he added.

The foreign legion in Ukraine now numbers around a thousand, and most of the wannabe heroes, the unfit and the fantasists who initially flocked to join in the early weeks have been booted out — or “dipped out,” in Eric’s words — once they went through their first bombardment or firefight, and realized “it’s real life and dangerous.”

“We still get some nutters — the vetting process isn’t great,” he grimaced, recalling how some German neo-Nazis had joined up last year, but they “dipped out because nobody wanted to work with them. We’re literally fighting fascists here. That’s what Russia is. Fascist. Their squad nickname was Wehrmacht. It was really stupid,” he said.

Eric, who asked to withhold his last name as he doesn’t want exposure, also echoed other American legionnaires when discussing the differences between various foreign fighters. The Belarusians, Chechens and Georgians are seen as much more ideological, viewing the war as a way toward freeing their own countries from Russia’s control, while most of the Americans and the British, as well as Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, are more like Eric — veterans whose chief motivation for being in Ukraine is to avoid civilian life, although they stress the rightness of the Ukrainian cause.

Motivations aside, the highly combat-experienced Americans and Brits are often used in especially risky commando and reconnaissance missions. And it was on such a mission that Eric and his entire squad was wounded near Bakhmut last year. He got shot in the chest — the bullet partly penetrating his body armor — and was then hit by two fragmentation grenades during a vicious close-quarter skirmish.

“I was bleeding in a bathroom — in the same building I got wounded in, with the Russians still inside. So, me and another guy, and then later another guy, were balls to the wall, trading fire with the Russians and tossing grenades at each other. I couldn’t move my arm and my leg, so I was, like, handing off magazines to the others, and then losing blood and passing out.” Another of the legion’s platoons was ordered to mount a rescue, “but they were busy making Instagram videos about the BTR [Russian armored personnel carrier] we’d all blown up earlier,” he said, chortling.

Meanwhile, among the many unintended consequences Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has triggered — including prodding Sweden and Finland to join NATO, wrecking the Moscow-tied Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was once a useful Kremlin tool of influence, and volunteering foreign fighters — there’s now another that will likely infuriate the homophobic leader: boosting support for gay rights in Ukraine.

“If Putin hates gays, we should support them,” announced Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Kozhemiakin to the surprise of many last month. Kozhemiakin previously served as an officer in the Soviet Navy from 1982 to 1988, and he was in the Russian KGB for several years.

His support for LGBTQ+ rights came during a committee hearing on a bill introduced in April by Inna Sovsun, an opposition lawmaker from the liberal, pro-European Holos party. Sovsun’s bill seeks to legalize same-sex civil partnerships, granting LGBTQ+ civil partners the same rights as married heterosexual couples. According to Sovsun, the war has helped shift public opinion, with many recognizing the inequity of the partners of LGBTQ+ soldiers not having any legal rights when their loved ones get wounded or killed — including making medical decisions on their behalf, burying them or receiving any state benefits.

Over a hundred soldiers have so far come out as LGBTQ+, and thousands more are estimated to be serving. “Kozhemiakin’s speech was the most impressive I’ve seen in the parliament, and was the least expected,” Sovsun said. But she also cautioned: “I think if the parliament were to vote on this today, it would fail. My feeling is that the parliament is more conservative than our society because 56 percent of Ukrainians actually support it.”

And public support is growing still, but the government doesn’t yet have an official position. “Zelenskyy does things when it’s clear the public wants him to do it. He hasn’t quite worked out what the public’s position is yet” on this, she said.

But she hopes he will . . . and soon.

CORRECTION: This article was updated to correct the number of years after Ukraine’s independence that the Ukrainian Catholic University was founded.

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