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US Warns of Large Serbian Military Buildup Near Kosovo

The United States called on Belgrade to pull its forces back from the border with Kosovo on Friday after detecting what it called an unprecedented Serbian military buildup.

Serbia deployed sophisticated tanks and artillery on the frontier after deadly clashes erupted at a monastery in northern Kosovo last week, the White House said.

The violence in which a Kosovo policeman and three Serb gunmen were killed marked one of the gravest escalations for years in Kosovo, a former Serbian breakaway province.

“We are monitoring a large Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “That includes an unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, mechanized infantry units.”

“We believe that this is a very destabilizing development,” he said. “We are calling on Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border.”

The buildup happened within the past week, but its purpose was not yet clear, Kirby said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had telephoned Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to urge an “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue.”

And White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to Kosovo’s prime minister.

Serbia’s Vucic did not directly deny there had been a recent buildup but rejected claims that his country’s forces were on alert.

“I have denied untruths where they talk about the highest level of combat readiness of our forces, because I simply did not sign that and it is not accurate,” Vucic told reporters. “We don’t even have half the troops we had two or three months ago.”


Serbia said on Wednesday that the defense minister and head of the armed forces had gone to visit a “deployment zone” but gave no further details.

The clashes on Sunday began when heavily armed Serb gunmen ambushed a patrol a few kilometers from the Serbian border, killing a Kosovo police officer.

Several dozen assailants then barricaded themselves at an Orthodox monastery, sparking an hourlong firefight in which three gunmen were killed and three were arrested.

Kosovo’s government has accused Belgrade of backing the entire operation. A member of a major Kosovo Serb political party admitted to leading the gunmen, his lawyer said Friday.

Kirby said the attack had a “very high level of sophistication,” involving around 20 vehicles, “military-grade” weapons, equipment and training.

“It’s worrisome,” he said. “It doesn’t look like just a bunch of guys who got together to do this.”

Peacekeeping force expected to grow

NATO would be “increasing its presence” of its peacekeeping force known as KFOR following the attack, Kirby added.

In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the U.S.-led alliance was ready to boost the force to deal with the situation.

Kosovo broke away from Serbia in a bloody war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008 — a status Belgrade and Moscow have refused to recognize.

It has long seen strained relations between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority, which have escalated in recent months in northern Kosovo.

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US Senators Call on Russia to Free American Captives

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced Friday a bipartisan resolution calling for the immediate release by Russia of two American detainees, Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan.

The resolution, co-sponsored by 27 senators, focuses on the continuing detention of Gershkovich, 32, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who was arrested on March 29 in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on espionage charges that carry up to 20 years in prison.

A Moscow court declined Gershkovich’s latest appeal Tuesday of his pre-trial detention.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have called baseless. He was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to serve 16 years.

“We believe Paul continues to show tremendous courage in the face of his wrongful detention. Ambassador [Lynne] Tracy reiterated to him that President [Joe] Biden and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken are committed to bring him home,” said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters at a mid-September briefing.

“Evan Gershkovich, a journalist with The Wall Street Journal, has been wrongfully detained in Russia for merely for doing his job: reporting facts and shedding light on President [Vladimir] Putin’s bogus rationale for his illegal war against Ukraine,” said Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s Democratic chairman.

“Freedom of the press is critical to holding governments accountable around the world,” said Senator Jim Risch, the panel’s top Republican.

During a news briefing Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Russia’s accusations baseless and called for Russia “to immediately release Evan and also to release wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan. Our efforts to secure their release are ongoing, and we will not stop until they are home.”

“It is clear that Evan is being held for leverage because he is an American,” she said, adding that Biden “has been clear that we have no higher priority than securing the release of Evan, Paul Whelan and all Americans wrongfully detained abroad.”

Russia has said the reporter was caught “red-handed” in Yekaterinburg, where the FSB security service said he was trying to obtain military secrets. It has not provided any details to support that assertion.

The U.S. has accused Russia of using Gershkovich to conduct hostage diplomacy, at a time when relations between the two countries have broken down at their worst point in more than 60 years because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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US Supreme Court Will Decide if State Laws Limiting Social Media Platforms Violate Constitution

The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether state laws that seek to regulate Facebook, TikTok, X and other social media platforms violate the Constitution.

The justices will review laws enacted by Republican-dominated legislatures and signed by Republican governors in Florida and Texas. While the details vary, both laws aim to prevent social media companies from censoring users based on their viewpoints.

The court’s announcement, three days before the start of its new term, comes as the justices continue to grapple with how laws written at the dawn of the digital age, or earlier, apply to the online world.

The justices had already agreed to decide whether public officials can block critics from commenting on their social media accounts, an issue that previously came up in a case involving then-President Donald Trump. The court dismissed the Trump case when his presidential term ended in January 2021.

Separately, the high court also could consider a lower-court order limiting executive branch officials’ communications with social media companies about controversial online posts.

The new case follows conflicting rulings by two appeals courts, one of which upheld the Texas law, while the other struck down Florida’s statute. By a 5-4 vote, the justices kept the Texas law on hold while litigation over it continues.

But the alignment was unusual. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett voted to grant the emergency request from two technology industry groups that challenged the law in federal court.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch would have allowed the law to remain in effect. In dissent, Alito wrote, “Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news.”

Proponents of the laws, including Republican elected officials in several states that have similar measures, have sought to portray social media companies as generally liberal in outlook and hostile to ideas outside of that viewpoint, especially from the political right.

The tech sector warned that the laws would prevent platforms from removing extremism and hate speech.

Without offering any explanation, the justices had put off consideration of the case even though both sides agreed the high court should step in.

The justices had other social media issues before them last year, including a plea the court did not embrace to soften legal protections tech companies have for posts by their users.

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Humanitarian Operations in Armenia Gather Speed as Exodus Continues

Emergency aid efforts for tens of thousands of refugees who have fled to Armenia from the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan are gathering speed as the exodus from the disputed region shows no signs of letting up.

Since Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19, the United Nations refugee agency says, more than 88,700 refugees have arrived in Armenia, mainly in the country’s southern Syunik region.

“The numbers are increasing as we speak, and the needs are also really increasing,” said Kavita Belani, UNHCR representative in Armenia, speaking in the capital, Yerevan, Friday.

She said the government has registered more than 63,000 of the 88,700 refugees.

“There are huge crowds at the registration centers,” Belani said. “There is congestion simply because the sheer numbers are so high.”

She said the government, United Nations and international and nongovernmental agencies were setting up tents, providing mattresses, blankets, hot meals and other essential items to the growing community.

One of the most urgent needs, she said, was for psycho-social support as people were arriving exhausted, hungry, frightened and not knowing what to expect.

“When they come, they are full of anxiety. … They want answers as to what is going to happen next,” she said. “They have questions about compensation, about the houses they have left behind, including whether they will be able to return to their houses, at least to pick up their goods, because many arrive with very little luggage.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has activated contingency plans to protect and provide for vulnerable communities affected by the escalating hostilities.

The IFRC launched an emergency appeal Friday for nearly $22 million to provide immediate relief and long-term support to tens of thousands of people who have recently crossed into Armenia via the Lachin corridor.

“As we confront the growing humanitarian needs, we must also look ahead,” said Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen, regional director of IFRC Europe. “They will need further support as they navigate the many questions of settling somewhere new.”

Her colleague, Hicham Diab, IFRC operations manager in Armenia, is on the ground in Yerevan and is witness to the dire situation facing the new arrivals that Diab says “often involves families arriving with children so weak that they have fainted in their parents’ arms.”

“It feels like the people affected reached the finish line of a marathon and crashed on the spot, which I have never seen before,” said Diab.

Diab noted that more than 100 staff and volunteers have been mobilized and positioned at the registration points to help the refugees as they arrive. He said that the conflict has worsened existing vulnerabilities and that the affected regions face severe challenges.

Essential goods and services are scarce, and hospitals are stretched.

“There is a massive need for mental health and psychosocial support. … As the weather is getting colder, shelter is becoming the most critical need for vulnerable families,” he said.

UNICEF reports that children account for about 30% of the arrivals and that many have been separated from their families while making their escape.

“We are working to provide psychosocial support and working with the ministries and local authorities to ensure that family tracing is done immediately and that families can reunite,” said Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF regional director for Europe and Central Asia.

She added that UNICEF was working with Armenia’s Ministry of Education to set up child-friendly spaces in the town of Goris and was providing educational supplies for the arriving children.

Carlos Morazzani, operations manager at the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, said his agency was working to reunite separated families in the region. He said that was especially important now because “when mass movements of people take place, people get separated, leading to real emotional distress.”

However, given the critical developments following the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, he said, the priority for the ICRC was on life-saving activities in the region, “including the transfer of wounded to hospitals into Armenia for treatment and bringing in medical supplies.”

“Over the past week, we have transferred around 130 people for medical care,” said Morazzani. “Another important element of our work right now is working to ensure the dignified management of the dead.”

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Putin Orders Former Wagner Commander to Take Charge of ‘Volunteer Units’ in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered one of the top commanders of the Wagner military contractor to take charge of “volunteer units” fighting in Ukraine, signaling the Kremlin’s effort to keep using the mercenaries after the death of their chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

In remarks released by the Kremlin on Friday, Putin told Andrei Troshev that his task is to “deal with forming volunteer units that could perform various combat tasks, primarily in the zone of the special military operation” — a term the Kremlin uses for its war in Ukraine.

Wagner fighters have had no significant role on the battlefield since the mercenary company withdrew after capturing the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle and then staged a brief insurrection when they marched toward Moscow.

After the aborted mutiny, speculation has been rife about the future of the mercenary group that was one of the most capable elements of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Many observers expected it to be folded into the Defense Ministry, and Putin’s comments appeared to confirm that process was underway.

Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was also present at the meeting late Thursday, a sign that Wagner mercenaries will likely serve under the Defense Ministry’s command. Speaking in a conference call with reporters on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Troshev now works for the Defense Ministry and referred questions about Wagner’s possible return to Ukraine to the military.

The meeting appeared to reflect the Kremlin’s plan to redeploy some Wagner mercenaries to the front line in Ukraine following their brief mutiny in June and the suspicious deaths of Prigozhin and the group’s senior leadership in a plane crash August 23. The private army that once counted tens of thousands of troops is a precious asset the Kremlin wants to exploit.

The June 23-24 rebellion aimed to oust the Russian Defense Ministry’s leadership that Prigozhin blamed for mishandling the war in Ukraine and trying to place Wagner under its control. His mercenaries took over Russia’s southern military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then rolled toward Moscow before abruptly halting the mutiny.

Putin denounced them as “traitors,” but the Kremlin quickly negotiated a deal ending the uprising in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. The mercenaries were offered a choice to retire from the service, move to Belarus or sign new contracts with the Defense Ministry.

Putin said in July that five days after the mutiny he had a meeting with 35 Wagner commanders, including Prigozhin, and suggested they keep serving under Troshev, who goes by the call sign “Gray Hair,” but Prigozhin refused the offer then.

Troshev is a retired military officer who has played a leading role in Wagner since its creation in 2014 and faced European Union sanctions over his role in Syria as the group’s executive director.

Wagner mercenaries have played a key role in Moscow’s war in Ukraine, spearheading the capture of Bakhmut in May after months of fierce fighting. Kyiv’s troops are now seeking to reclaim it as part of their summer counteroffensive that has slowly recaptured some of its lands but now faces the prospect of wet and cold weather that could further delay progress.

The U.K. Defense Ministry said in its intelligence briefing on Friday that hundreds of former Wagner troops had likely begun to redeploy to Ukraine to fight for either the Russian military or pro-Russia private military companies.

Wagner veterans reportedly were concentrated around Bakhmut, where the British said their experience would be in demand because they are familiar with the front line and Ukrainian tactics after fighting there last winter.

New sanctions

The U.K. has announced new sanctions aimed at officials behind Russia’s illegal annexation of territories in Ukraine and elections held there earlier this month by Moscow to try to legitimize their hold on the occupied regions.

Western countries denounced the elections in the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow annexed in 2022 — Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia — and on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014, as a violation of international law.

The new sanctions come on the eve of the first anniversary of Russia laying claim to the territory and will freeze assets and ban travel for officials in those regions and those behind the vote.

“Russia’s sham elections are a transparent, futile attempt to legitimize its illegal control of sovereign Ukrainian territory,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said. “You can’t hold ‘elections’ in someone else’s country.” 

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Teen Chops Down Iconic Tree in Britain

A teenager has cut down a world-famous tree in northern England.

The 16-year-old boy has been arrested and released for cutting down the Sycamore Gap tree that stood alone along Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland county.

The tree, which was several hundred years old, was cut down Wednesday, in what Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness said “looks like a deliberate act of vandalism.” 

Photographs of the fallen tree show that it was cut at its base.  

Fans of the tree posted on various internet sites photographs of the tree that they had taken, along with comments about what the tree meant to them.

The tree was featured in the 1991 film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” starring Kevin Costner.

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Ukraine Now IAEA Board of Governors Member

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address Thursday that Ukraine is now a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors.

“This not only underscores our international security role but also provides real opportunities for Ukraine to influence the adoption of decisions that are binding for all IAEA members and the entire international community,” Zelenskyy said.

He said Ukraine will do everything it can to ensure regional nuclear and radiation security, and liberate Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant from its Russian occupiers, to secure Europe from “Russian radiation blackmail.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of fighters previously associated with the Wagner Group, “have likely started to redeploy to Ukraine” as individuals and in small groups that are fighting for a variety of pro-Russian units, the British Defense Ministry said Friday in its daily intelligence update on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It said reports suggest a concentration of Wagner veterans around the eastern city of Bakhmut, a sector where their past experience could be useful.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in Russia last month, raising questions about the future of his forces.

The cause of the plane crash that killed Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders has not been determined, but many Western officials believe it was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s retribution for the uprising Prigozhin led, a troop movement toward Moscow that he abruptly called off. 

In the weeks that followed, Prigozhin met with Putin at the Kremlin and traveled freely in Russia before the plane crash. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that Ukrainian forces are “gradually gaining ground” in the face of fierce fighting and that he is constantly urging allies to provide more aid, boost defense production and speed up arms deliveries to Ukraine.

“The stronger Ukraine becomes, the closer we come to ending Russia’s aggression,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Kyiv.

Speaking alongside Zelenskyy, Stoltenberg said NATO has framework contracts in place for $2.5 billion in key ammunition for Ukraine.

Stoltenberg said it is in NATO’s security interest to provide Ukraine what it needs to win the war.

In the United States, as the federal government prepares for a possible shutdown, the country’s aid in the Ukrainian war effort could falter, according to Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh.

Those affected by the shutdown would include Pentagon civilians involved in English-language training for Ukraine’s F-16 pilots, so if there is a government shutdown, “there could be impacts to training,” Singh said. “At this point right now, I just don’t have more specific details to offer.”

France has pledged its continued support of Ukraine, and the two countries have been in talks to maintain the continuous securing of arms for Kyiv.

“Dozens of projects have either been launched or are under discussion, aimed at organizing joint production of new weapons or maintenance of weapons already with us,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov told a news conference alongside his French counterpart, Sebastien Lecornu.

France will “continue to help Ukraine as much as is necessary,” Lecornu said.

No specific details were given on the arms Paris intends to send to Kyiv.

Some information in this report was provided by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.  

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More Than 2,500 Migrants Dead or Missing in Mediterranean in 2023, UN Says

More than 2,500 migrants died or went missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2023, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees official said Thursday.

“By September 24, over 2,500 people were accounted as dead or missing in 2023 alone,” Ruven Menikdiwela, director of the UNHCR New York office, told the U.N. Security Council.

That number marked a large increase over the 1,680 dead or missing migrants in the same period in 2022.

“Lives are also lost on land, away from public attention,” she added.

The land journey from sub-Saharan African countries, where many of the migrants hail from, to departure points on the Tunisian and Libyan coasts “remains one of the world’s most dangerous,” Menikdiwela said.

The migrants and refugees “risk death and gross human rights violations at every step,” said Menikdiwela.

In total, some 186,000 people arrived by sea in southern Europe from January to Sept. 24, landing in Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta. 

The majority, over 130,000 people, arrived in Italy, marking an increase of 83% compared to the same period in 2022. 

As for departure points, between January and August of this year it is estimated that more than 102,000 refugees and migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia and 45,000 from Libya. 

An estimated 31,000 people were rescued at sea or intercepted and disembarked in Tunisia, and 10,600 in Libya, Menikdiwela said. 

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Sweden’s Leader Turns to Military for Help as Gang Violence Escalates

Sweden’s prime minister on Thursday said that he’s summoned the head of the military to discuss how the armed forces can help police deal with an unprecedented crime wave that has shocked the country with almost daily shootings and bombings.

Getting the military involved in crime-fighting would be a highly unusual step for Sweden, underscoring the severity of the gang violence that has claimed a dozen lives across the country this month, including teenagers and innocent bystanders.

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that he would meet with the armed forces’ supreme commander and the national police commissioner on Friday to explore “how the armed forces can help police in their work against the criminal gangs.”

It wasn’t immediately clear in what capacity the military would get involved, but previous proposals have focused on soldiers taking over protection duties from police to free up more resources for crime-fighting.

“Sweden has never before seen anything like this,” Kristersson said in a televised speech to the nation. “No other country in Europe is seeing anything like this.”

Sweden has grappled with gang violence for years, but the surge in shootings and bombings in September has been exceptional. Three people were killed overnight in separate attacks with suspected links to criminal gangs, which often recruit teenagers in socially disadvantaged immigrant neighborhoods to carry out hits.

One of the victims was a woman in her 20s who died in an explosion in Uppsala, north of Stockholm. Swedish media said she was likely not the intended target of the attack.

Newspaper Dagens Nyheter said an 18-year-old rapper was killed late Wednesday in a shooting outside a sports complex on the outskirts of Stockholm.

More than 60 people died in shootings last year in Sweden, the highest figure on record. This year is on track to be the same or worse. Swedish media have linked the latest surge in violence to a feud between rival factions of a criminal gang known as the Foxtrot network.

Earlier this week, two powerful blasts ripped through dwellings in central Sweden, wounding at least three people and damaging buildings.

Kristersson’s center-right government took power last year with a promise to get tough on crime, but so far hasn’t been able to stem the violence. The government and the leftist opposition have been trading accusations over who’s to blame for the situation. The opposition says the government has made the country less safe while Kristersson put the blame on “irresponsible migration policies and failed integration” under the previous government.

Sweden long stood out in Europe along with Germany for having liberal immigration policies and welcoming hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa. Sweden has since sharply restricted migration levels, citing rising crime levels and other social problems.

Kristersson said that he met with New York Mayor Eric Adams last week to learn from the city’s efforts to fight crime, including surveillance methods and weapon detection systems.

The prime minister said that the government is overhauling Sweden’s criminal code to give police more powers, criminals longer sentences and witnesses better protection.

“Swedish laws aren’t designed for gang wars and child soldiers,” Kristersson said.

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Analysis: Xi and Putin to Meet as Allies Despite Differences

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in October on the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

The trip will be Putin’s first known travel abroad since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in March over alleged war crimes, but the second time the two have met in person this year.

Analysts say the meeting will be an opportunity for the two leaders to bolster their countries’ relationship and to voice their shared grievances about U.S. leadership in global affairs.

“They’ll complain [about the U.S.], and they’ll stick to their talking points,” Sergey Radchenko, a China-Russia scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told VOA.

In remarks on Tuesday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized governments that view foreign policy in terms of “democracy versus authoritarianism,” and urged the U.S. to host a more inclusive Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit in November.

When asked at a recent press conference about the upcoming meeting between Xi and Putin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said, “The leaders of China and Russia maintain close strategic communication.” Ning did not provide specifics about what will be discussed.

The press offices of China and Russia did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the meeting.

If the two leaders build on the themes of a September 20 meeting between China’s top diplomat and Putin, it is likely to be an opportunity for “deepening practical cooperation,” as described in a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout of the event in St. Petersburg.

Ukraine war challenges ‘no limits’ relationship

Experts said while the Sino-Russian partnership has its strengths and will last for the foreseeable future, the two sides have not always seen eye to eye on key issues, including the war in Ukraine.

Unlike NATO members, Russia and China have no formal obligation to defend each other, though China announced early last year that its relationship with Russia would have “no limits.”

That statement came shortly before Putin waged war on Ukraine. Beijing has since “walked back that language,” Radchenko said. “We no longer hear about a ‘no limits’ partnership.”

As the top buyer of Moscow’s fossil fuels, Beijing has played an outsize role in helping Putin’s government survive Western embargoes and continue its invasion of Ukraine, said Joseph Nye Jr., professor emeritus of Harvard Kennedy School.

Even so, Nye told VOA that China has not officially provided Russia with weapons for its war amid fears of European sanctions, which, in his words, proves “there actually are limits [to China-Russia relations].”

Early last year, Beijing released a 12-point peace proposal but has not pressured Russia for an immediate resolution to the conflict.

“The Chinese peace plan for Ukraine is not really an impartial peace plan,” Nye said. “It’s a way to appear to be a peacemaker in the eyes of the Europeans, which is a significant Chinese market.”

However close Xi and Putin are, their relationship is not strong enough for China to risk losing its soft power in Europe by publicly supporting Russia’s war, said Ali Wyne, a senior analyst with Eurasia Group.

“Even as China strengthens its relationship with Russia, I don’t think that China wants to abandon its relationship with the West. Xi’s going to have to strike a balancing act,” Wyne said.

China’s European partners are important bargaining chips, experts said, especially ahead of the APEC summit, where there could be a sideline meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden.

When asked at a recent briefing what the U.S. hopes Xi will communicate to Putin when the two meet in October, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “I would like to see every leader who goes and speaks to President Putin reinforce that [every nation’s territorial sovereignty] is inviolable.”

Wyne said Xi could ask for assurances from Putin that the war will end sooner rather than later.

“China,” Wyne said, “recognizes that the longer the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, the more the Sino-Russian relationship undercuts China’s ability to advance its diplomacy in the West.”

Xi and Putin’s differences beyond Ukraine

For more than a decade, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, has enhanced the Chinese Communist Party’s ties across Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania and Latin America. Nye described BRI as “a mixed bag” of economic aid, export subsidies and public works projects in developing nations with the goal of buying influence.

Experts said Russia’s foreign policy is simpler: offering mercenaries to autocrats abroad in exchange for natural resources, such as diamonds.

“The Chinese have money to spend, and the Russians don’t. The Russians can support mercenaries because that’s fairly cheap, but they’re not going to build roads and dams and airports [in other countries],” Nye said.

China has invested an estimated $1 trillion in BRI and can compete against American interests on nearly every continent. Analysts said Moscow can only access that level of power by cozying up to Beijing.

But the Sino-Russian partnership still has its fair share of contradictions and infighting, according to Nye and Radchenko.

For one, China considers former Soviet countries in Central Asia to be under its purview.

“[Moscow is] happy to see [BRI] projects that weaken the Americans,” Nye said. “On the other hand, the Russians are not all that keen on BRI projects in Central Asia, which they regard as their sphere of influence.”

But Radchenko does not anticipate “any serious rifts between Russia and China over Central Asia in the coming years.” Putin and Xi, he said, would rather smooth over their disagreements than jeopardize their larger aim of combating U.S. foreign policy.

Ahead of October’s Belt and Road forum, Putin has denied that BRI is at all in conflict with Moscow’s interests. “[BRI] harmonizes [Russia and China’s] ideas to create a vast Eurasian space. … We are quite in sync,” TASS, a Russian state-run news outlet, quoted Putin as saying last week.

“Russia needs China far more than the other way around,” Wyne said, explaining Putin’s willingness to compromise with Xi.

Even with the underlying differences described by analysts, “dialogues like this [the Xi-Putin meeting] are how China and Russia have been able to navigate … frictions,” Radchenko said.

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Nagorno-Karabakh Exodus Surpasses 65,000

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh continue to cross into Armenia by the thousands, with more than half the population of the enclave evacuated since Monday. New arrivals say the roads are packed 100 kilometers behind them. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Goris, Armenia, on the road leading from Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Turkish Lawmakers Delay Vote on Sweden’s NATO Membership

Sweden’s bid to join NATO is heading for a delay as Turkey’s parliament starts a new session this Sunday without the NATO enlargement vote on the agenda. As Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, delaying a vote on Sweden’s NATO membership puts Turkey on a collision course with the U.S.

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Israel to Sell Germany Cutting-Edge Missile Defense System

Israel finalized a $3.5 billion deal on Thursday to sell its cutting-edge Arrow 3 missile defense system to Germany as the nation seeks to protect itself from the types of air assaults that have ravaged Ukraine.

“We see from the daily Russian attacks on Ukraine how important air defense is in general,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters. “Air defense is essential, and particularly for us here in the center of Europe.”

Pistorius hailed the Arrow 3 as “one of the best systems, if not the best.” Berlin plans to implement the anti-missile technology in late 2025 and integrate it into broader NATO air defense programs.

Last year, Berlin also spearheaded the European Sky Shield Initiative, a sprawling air defense campaign that now covers 19 nations.

The United States helped Israel build Arrow and in August green-lighted the German-Israeli deal.

Yoav Gallant, Pistorius’ Israeli counterpart, said that “with two simple signatures today, we made history.” Gallant promised Berlin “a timely and effective delivery.”

Gallant also reflected on how far Germany has come since the Holocaust, pointing out German contributions to Israel’s national security and sovereignty. He called the deal “a moving event for every Jew.”

“Israel and Germany join hands today in building a safer future for both nations,” Gallant said.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.

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Q&A: Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang on AI and Censorship

On the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang delivered a speech at the Concordia Annual Summit on digital democracy and artificial intelligence. VOA spoke with Tang about how AI might help break through China’s censorship and the challenges and opportunities the technology brings to global democracy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: You mentioned the concept of AI governance in your speech. In addition to being applied to democratic countries, can this concept also be applied to totalitarian countries?

Tang: From 2010 to 2012 and 2013, consultative democracy was also studied in some places in the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], but not at the central level. Later, including freedom of the press, assembly, association and expression, all aspects were restricted. If you look at the papers, there have been very few studies promoting consultative democracy through the internet in recent years. Conceptually and theoretically, if we look at the situation in 2000, it seemed possible. But if we look at the situation in recent years, there seems to be no research on this. Maybe the premise is freedom of the press, and people must fully understand what the truth is. Regardless of consultation or deliberation, this foundation is needed. If freedom of the press is deprived, it will not be easy to develop further.

VOA: What do you think of the potential and limitations of artificial intelligence in China?

Tang: Artificial intelligence technology can turn public information on the entire Internet into material. After the [open-source] model is successfully created, it can actually be saved on a USB flash drive. Anyone can run this model on a laptop or personal computer, which greatly challenges censorship. In the past, as long as a comprehensive totalitarian government guarded access to Google, Wikipedia or other websites, it would make it difficult for their people to get the truth. But now, as long as netizens can get the [open-source] language models on a flash drive … they will no longer need an internet connection, and they can always find out what happened and when exactly did it happen.

VOA: Former White House deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger has proposed punching holes in China’s Great Firewall. Is that possible?

Tang: If the holes are temporary, they will be repaired once people find them. The language models I just mentioned don’t mean that there needs to be holes continuously, but that if there is a certain way to send information in, there is no need to connect to the outside anymore. The bad use is that if a Trojan horse is sent in, there is no need to control the computer anymore, and it can conduct network attacks by itself. This is a bad use. But there is another use, which is to send in the truth, and after that, it can even tell the users in the interactive Q&A format, including showing contemporaneous photos and videos from the time.

VOA: Does your upbringing and way of thinking help you with your current work?

Tang: I am nonbinary not only in terms of gender but also in terms of ideology. Many people have to make choices, such as the left and the right [politically]. For me, they all coexist. I don’t particularly feel I’m very close to or very far from half of the people because they are rightists or leftists. I don’t think that way. Everyone is at the same distance. If I can’t understand the ideas of a certain side, I will feel I’m not plural enough, and I should be in touch with them more.

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Australian Lawmakers Urge Outside Help for Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Refugees

Seven Australian lawmakers have toured a refugee camp in Armenia, as thousands of ethnic Armenians flee their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Forces from Azerbaijan took control of the contested region last week.

A delegation of seven Australian lawmakers is visiting Armenia this week and toured a camp for those fleeing the unrest.

The lawmakers have described a shortage of humanitarian relief and a sense of fear among those who have been displaced.

They are urging Australia and other countries to send more aid and medical supplies and have called on the United Nations to send observers to monitor the situation.

Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan, but the mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus has been under the control of ethnic Armenians for three decades with support from Armenia and its ally, Russia, which has had a peacekeeping mission there for three years.

Last week, Azerbaijani forces seized control, prompting thousands of ethnic Armenians to flee to Armenia.  Ethnic Armenian fighters in the region were forced to disarm.

Mark Coure is the New South Wales state shadow minister for multiculturalism and is part of the delegation.  He spoke to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from the town of Goris in Armenia about the flood of refugees.

“We are seeing firsthand, I think, an international crisis unfold.  We are seeing hundreds of cars and buses and open-top trucks snaking their way through Armenia.  What we are seeing here is just truly an extraordinary event unfold.  The main square in Goris is crowded, which is where I am standing at the moment.”

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said Australia encouraged “dialogue and a commitment by all sides to talks that deliver a just and lasting peace” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Authorities have said more than 28,000 refugees had crossed into Armenia.  The country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, told local media that ethnic cleansing was underway in the region.  Azerbaijan has insisted that it wants to reintegrate the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as “equal citizens.”

Representatives from Azerbaijan and Armenia have met in Brussels for talks brokered by the European Union.  Azerbaijan mounted an effective blockade of a vital route into the enclave in December. 

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Ukraine Says It Destroyed 34 Russian Drones

Ukraine’s military said Thursday its air defenses downed 34 of 44 Shahed drones that Russia used to attack the country overnight.

The areas targeted in the attack included Mykolaiv, Odesa and Kirovohrad.

Oleh Kiper, the regional governor of Odesa, said on Telegram there were no casualties there. He said there was no destruction, only a few small grass fires from falling debris.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Wednesday that his country’s fighters “need more means of destroying Russian missiles, Shaheds and other combat drones, as well as Russian aircraft.”

Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to “everyone in the world who is already helping and is willing to ramp up assistance to our country with the means that can provide more protection against Russian terror.”

Wagner fighters

About 500 Wagner mercenaries who fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine before fleeing to Belarus after a short-lived mutiny in June have now returned to the front lines to again fight Kyiv’s forces, a Ukrainian Army spokesperson said Wednesday.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in Russia last month, raising questions about the future of his forces. Some, possibly as many as 6,000, have been in Belarus for three months, while others had been deployed to Africa, where Wagner also has had ongoing operations.

Now, about 500 of the Wagner troops have resumed fighting for Russia in Ukraine, Ilya Yevlash, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s Eastern Grouping of Forces, told Ukrainian broadcaster RBC-Ukraine. He said the Russian Defense Ministry had renegotiated contracts with the returning mercenaries.

“These individuals are indeed among the most well-trained in the Russian army, but they will not become a game-changer,” Yevlash said. 

Most of the Wagner forces that had previously fought in Ukraine had taken part in the brief mutiny but moved to Belarus under a deal the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yevlash said the camps in Belarus are now being disbanded.

The cause of the plane crash that killed Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders has not been determined but many Western officials believe it was Putin’s retribution for the uprising Prigozhin led, a troop movement toward Moscow that he abruptly called off.

In the weeks that followed, Prigozhin met with Putin at the Kremlin and traveled freely in Russia before the plane crash.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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 VOA on the Scene: Tens of Thousands Flee Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia

At least 50,000 people have fled from their homes in Nagorno-Karabagh into Armenia this week. The exodus comes after the long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan appears to have ended swiftly in Baku’s favor. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Armenia, near the border with Nagorno-Karabakh.

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HRW Says European Firms Ditching Toxic Ships on Bangladesh Beaches

European maritime companies are ditching their old ships for scrap on Bangladesh beaches in dangerous and polluting conditions that have killed workers pulling them apart, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

Bangladesh’s southeastern Sitakunda beaches have emerged as one of the world’s largest shipbreaking yards, fueling the South Asian country’s booming construction industry and its need for cheap sources of steel.

European firms are among the shipping companies to have sent 520 vessels to the site since 2020, where thousands of workers take apart ships without protective gear.

“Companies scrapping ships in Bangladesh’s dangerous and polluting yards are making a profit at the expense of Bangladeshi lives and the environment,” said HRW researcher Julia Bleckner. “Shipping companies should stop using loopholes in international regulations and take responsibility for safely and responsibly managing their waste.”

Workers told HRW they used their socks as gloves to avoid burns while cutting through molten steel, covered their mouths with shirts to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carried chunks of steel while barefoot.

“Workers described injuries from falling chunks of steel or being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded,” HRW said in its report, published jointly with Belgian-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

At least 62 workers have been killed by accidents in Sitakunda’s shipbreaking yards since 2019, Bangladeshi environmental group Young Power in Social Action has said.

Two workers died last week in separate incidents after falling from partially dismantled ships, police told AFP.

‘Little or no attention to worker safety’

The Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA), which represents yard owners, said its members had moved to upgrade safety ahead of a new international convention on safe and environmentally sound scrapping, due to enter into force in 2025.

“We are turning our shipbreaking yards into green yards even though it is expensive,” BSBA president Mohammad Abu Taher told AFP. “We are working on it. We supply protective equipment to workers.”

But Fazlul Kabir Mintu, coordinator for the Danish-funded Occupational Safety and Security Information Center, said yard owners operated in a “climate of impunity” because of their outsized influence in local politics.

“There is little or no attention to worker safety in dozens of yards,” he told AFP.

‘Living in misery’

Many ships sent to Sitakunda contained asbestos, said Ripon Chowdhury, executive director of the OSHE Foundation charity that works with shipbreaking laborers.

Asbestos is associated with lung cancer and other life-threatening diseases, but Chowdhury told AFP that workers were forced to mop it up with their bare hands.

He added that his organization had studied 110 shipbreaking workers for exposure to the toxic substance, finding that 33 had tested positive.

“All 33 workers were victims of varying degrees of lung damage,” he said. “Of the victims, three have died, while others are living in misery.”

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Iran Says It Successfully Launched Imaging Satellite Amid Tensions With West

Iran claimed on Wednesday it successfully launched an imaging satellite into space, a move that could further ratchet up tensions with Western nations that fear its space technology could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Iranian Communication Minister Isa Zarepour said the Noor-3 satellite had been put in an orbit 450 kilometers (280 miles) above Earth’s surface, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. It was not clear when the launch took place.

There was no immediate acknowledgment from Western officials of the launch or of the satellite being put into orbit. The U.S. military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Iran has had a series of failed launches in recent years.

The most recent launch was carried out by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which has had more success. Gen. Hossein Salami, the top commander of the Guard, told state TV that the launch had been a “victory” and that the satellite will collect data and images.

Authorities released footage of a rocket taking off from a mobile launcher without saying where the launch occurred. Details in the video corresponded with a Guard base near Shahroud, some 330 kilometers (205 miles) northeast of the capital, Tehran. The base is in Semnan province, which hosts the Imam Khomeini Spaceport from which Iran’s civilian space program operates.

The Guard operates its own space program and military infrastructure parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces and answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It launched its first satellite into space in April 2020. But the head of the U.S. Space Command later dismissed it as a “tumbling webcam in space” that would not provide vital intelligence. Western sanctions bar Iran from importing advanced spying technology.

The United States has alleged that Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and has called on Tehran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 threat assessment claims the development of satellite launch vehicles “shortens the timeline” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology.

Iran has always denied seeking nuclear weapons and says its space program, like its nuclear activities, is for purely civilian purposes. U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The program has seen recent troubles, however. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another satellite-carrying rocket.

A fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 killed three researchers, authorities said at the time. A launchpad rocket explosion later that year drew the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who taunted Iran with a tweet showing what appeared to be a U.S. surveillance photo of the site.

Tensions are already high with Western nations over Iran’s nuclear program, which has steadily advanced since Trump five years ago withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and restored crippling sanctions on Iran.

Efforts to revive the agreement reached an impasse more than a year ago. Since then, the IAEA has said Iran has enough uranium enriched to near-weapons grade levels to build “several” nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. Iran is also building a new underground nuclear facility that would likely be impervious to U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. Both countries have said they would take military action if necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Iran has expressed willingness to return to the 2015 nuclear deal but says the U.S. should first ease the sanctions.

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Slovakia’s Election Threatens to Upend Western Unity on Ukraine

Slovakia is due to hold parliamentary elections Saturday amid fears in Kyiv and Western capitals that the result could jeopardize unity on support for Ukraine following Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.

Robert Fico

The populist Smer, or Direction, party, led by former prime minister Robert Fico, is leading the polls with around 18% of the vote. He has campaigned on a platform of ending military support for Ukraine and blocking the country’s path to NATO membership, while opposing sanctions on Russia.

Speaking at a campaign rally September 6 in the town of Michalovce, close to the Ukrainian border, Fico called for an end to Western weapons supplies for Kyiv.

“Peace is the only solution. I refuse to get criticized and labeled as a warmonger just for talking about peace, whereas those who support war and killing are being called peace activists. We have it all messed up in our heads. We will not send a single bullet to Ukraine from the state stocks,” Fico told cheering supporters.

Military aid

Slovakia has until now been a strong supporter of Ukraine, donating its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets and an S-300 air defense system.

Fico pledged to reverse such policies. “Why for God’s sake don’t we go negotiate peace? Why do we only talk about how much ammunition we are going to send to Ukraine, what tanks are we going to send, how many billions are we going to spend on more armaments?” he said.

“Why don’t we force the warring parties, use the weight of the EU and the U.S. to make them sit down and find some sort of compromise that would guarantee security for Ukraine,” Fico told The Associated Press in a recent interview, adding that he would oppose European Union sanctions on Moscow and block any application by Ukraine to join NATO.

Fico’s Smer party looks set to fall well short of a parliamentary majority and would need to form a coalition government, giving a potentially crucial role to Slovakia’s numerous smaller political parties.

Political chaos

Fico served as Slovakia’s prime minister between 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018.

He was forced to resign after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, in 2018 prompted mass protests. Kuciak had been investigating alleged tax fraud among top Slovakian business leaders with close links to politicians.

Since then, Slovakia has undergone a period of political turmoil, with four prime ministers in five years. Fico appears to have regained his support, partly on the back of his calls to end support for Ukraine, according to Dominika Hajdu, an analyst with the Bartislava-based policy group GLOBSEC.

Pro-Russian sentiments

“These kind of anti-Ukraine or even pro-Russian narratives resonate among Slovaks. One factor is definitely that Slovakia has historically had quite a large portion of the society with pro-Russian sentiments,” Hajdu told VOA.

A recent survey by GLOBSEC showed that just over half of Slovaks believe the West or Kyiv are responsible for the war following Russia’s February 2022 invasion. Similarly, half of respondents saw the United States as posing a security threat for Slovakia, up from 39% in 2022.

Politicians have sought to exploit those sentiments, Hajdu said. “Political representatives have been utilizing the war in Ukraine to spread nationalist populism. So, they put the issue of the war in Ukraine into the contrast with being pro-Slovak,” he said.

“Just to give you an example: ‘By providing military support to Ukraine, we are taking security guarantees from Slovakia. By providing financial support to Ukraine, we’re taking money from Slovaks who need it more.’ So, they were able to create an assumption that by being pro-Ukrainian, you’re anti-Slovak,” Hajdu told VOA.

Hungarian ally

Until now, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been the sole NATO and EU member to openly question Western support for Ukraine. Fico sees Orban as a future ally, says Grigorij Meseznikov of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs.

“I think [Fico] is not brave enough to become a single dissident. But now that he’s got Orban, he’s got a solid point to adhere to. So, he will join Orban. He has become very authentically pro-Russian and spreads Russian narratives,” Meseznikov told The Associated Press.

Domino effect

In several other Western countries, populist parties skeptical of the West’s military aid to Ukraine enjoy significant public support, Hajdu said.

“I’m afraid it might cause a bit of a domino effect, especially in countries that are awaiting elections. We’re already seeing in Poland that the issue of support for Ukraine is being brought up,” Hajdu said. Poland is due to hold elections October 15.

The Progressive Slovakia party, led by the current vice president of the European Parliament, Michal Simecka, is polling just behind Fico’s Smer party. Simecka is strongly pro-Western and supports military aid for Ukraine.

Analysts say that coalition negotiations will be difficult for any party and that the elections are unlikely to end Slovakia’s political turmoil.

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