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Italy Poised to Elect First Female Leader Amid Neofascism Concerns

Italy goes to the polls Sunday after the collapse of the ruling coalition in July. As Henry Ridgwell reports, a right-wing party with past links to fascism looks set to win the most votes, raising concerns in the European Union.

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VOA Interview: Anne Neuberger

Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, spoke about Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine and Iranian cyberattacks on Albania with VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara on Thursday.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Anne Nueberger, thank you so much for joining me all today. I’m going to start with Russia. President Vladimir Putin has significantly increased his war efforts. He’s announced mobilization, referendums, threatening nuclear attacks. Are we also expecting an increase in cyberattacks?

DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER FOR CYBER AND EMERGING TECHNOLOGY ANNE NEUBERGER: So first, thank you so much for having me here. It’s really great to be here. Throughout the conflict, beginning when Russia first did its further invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen Russia use destructive cyberattacks as well as intelligence collection to advance its war mission. We saw the initial destructive attacks on satellite systems, then later on Ukrainian government systems and additional critical infrastructures systems. So one would expect that as Russia further redouble its efforts, that will include cyberattacks as well.

VOA: Have you actually seen indications of it starting?

NEUBERGER: Of additional cyberattacks?

VOA: Of cyberattack, yes?

NEUBERGER: It’s been a consistent part of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. So it’s something we expect. Do we have particular indications of an increase in that way at this time? We don’t.

VOA: How are you helping the Ukrainians defend themselves?

NEUBERGER: Such a great question. So beginning back when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2015-16 and conducted disruptive cyberattacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, we began to work with Ukraine to really strengthen the resilience of its critical infrastructure. That partnership continued up through the months as we were concerned about heightened war activity, and that included work on cybersecurity resilience of critical infrastructure, included our sending in a team from the U.S. Cyber Command, again to work on cybersecurity, teams from the Department of Energy working closely to improve resilience, and ongoing information sharing regarding tactics and techniques used to conduct malicious cyberattacks. So that remains an ongoing partnership all the way from resilience efforts to practical information sharing to help defense systems.

VOA: Are you also working in terms of strengthening their counterdefense systems?

NEUBERGER: We’re very focused on cybersecurity resilience systems.

VOA: In that sense, whether it’s a terrorist offense or counterattacks, we’re hearing a lot about this volunteer hackers called the Ukrainian IT army, and I want to hear what your sense of how good and how successful they have been in deterring or hurting or even stopping Russian attacks. And what kind of support is the administration providing them?

NEUBERGER: We’ve seen quite a bit of volunteer hacking activity with regard to Ukrainian activity to defend accounts. I don’t think we have really good insights in terms of understanding what’s Ukrainian government versus volunteer hacking activity. And, of course, our assistance is government to government. With regard to, as I mentioned earlier, some of the cybersecurity activities assisting the Ukrainian government to build and strengthen its resilience and its defense.

VOA: So just to be clear, your support and your interaction is with the direct government, not with groups outside who are also supporting, like the Ukrainian IT army.

NEUBERGER: Yes, our support is really, along with all of our security systems, government to government.

VOA: You mentioned earlier that, you know, the Russian attack has been consistent. And we also hear that there’s been warnings of major Russian cyberattacks on Ukrainian infrastructure – critical infrastructure, at the beginning or before the start of the war. We heard warnings that that’s how the war is going to start. I’m not quite sure that actually did happen. And in fact, throughout the war, we haven’t really heard any kind of major cyberattack that’s actually crippling Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Is that the case or are we just not hearing about it? What are your thoughts on this?

NEUBERGER: It’s a good question. So first, as Russia began its further invasion of Ukraine, we did see Russia conduct a destructive attack on Ukrainian communication systems, satellite communications systems, the ground parts, as well as on Ukrainian government websites and government systems. That initial attack, the Ukrainians were able to quickly recover and bring back up those systems. The U.S. government, because there was a ripple effect across Europe from their first Russian destructive attack on communication systems, the U.S. government and the European Union called out that activity and said this is irresponsible activity, but the Ukrainian government was able to quickly recover those websites and quickly recover from those destructive attacks, which is really a tribute to all the cybersecurity resilience and focus they put on improving the security of their systems, disconnecting their energy grid from the Russian grid, reconnecting to the European grid and the work they had done to really harden that. So that preparedness and frankly that partnership between various countries assisting the Ukrainians on that work, although the Ukrainians really led that work, was key to their defense. There have been ongoing Russian cyberattacks. The Ukrainians have been very successful at, you know, catching those, and really remediating and addressing them quickly so that they didn’t have significant impact.

VOA: Is the support given to them, government to government, U.S. to Ukraine, or is it also through NATO?

NEUBERGER: The support is from individual governments, the U.S. government, the European individual governments are providing various cybersecurity assistance.

VOA: OK, on the flipside, what do we know about the Russian cyber operations support? I mean to what extent is Russia getting support from other countries? Do we see a strategic alignment in terms of cyber warfare between Russia, China, North Korea, Iran?

NEUBERGER: Russia has a very capable cyber program and one of our focus areas both for the U.S. and for the Europeans has been to really improve our own preparedness, to ensure we lock our doors, lock our digital windows so that we can prepare in case there are heightened Russian cyberattacks as well. So it’s clearly been a focus for us on the U.S. side.

VOA: Have we seen so far that there are strategic alignments or at least tactical alignments between these adversaries in cyber warfare?

NEUBERGER: In the cyber context, no, we haven’t.

VOA: The war in Ukraine is the first conflict where we see some sort of coordination between cyberattacks and kinetic military assault. So in that sense, what are we learning about this hybrid warfare and what are we learning about the Russian capabilities in that realm?

NEUBERGER: I think we’re fundamentally learning that as countries think about their national defense for crisis or conflict, the digital systems they operate at, whether they’re individuals, whether they’re companies, whether they’re governments … need as much to be defended, and the preparation work to understand what are the most important components of your power systems, your water systems, your oil and gas pipelines, and ensuring that they’re up to snuff. The cybersecurity is capable to defend against a capable adversary. And that’s the core message. That doesn’t happen in a moment because these elements of critical infrastructure were digitized in many countries without necessarily considering security baked in at the beginning. And that’s one of the reasons in the U.S. and with partners around the world we’re working to quickly improve the security of critical infrastructure, recognizing that it’s a component of adversaries work in crisis and conflict to either coerce a population, or coerce the government by potentially destabilizing or disrupting digital systems.

VOA: I want to talk some more about what the U.S. is doing in terms of building this responsible state behavior in the cyber realm, but first I just want to talk a little bit on this Iranian cyberattack on Albania. The administration has slapped fresh sanctions on Iran as punishment, yet that didn’t stop them from launching a second attack. Are we not doing enough? Is there nothing else that we can do to deter them and how are we helping the Albanians?

NEUBERGER: It’s such an interesting question. So cyber deterrence is a very new field, and it draws on lessons and the approach we’ve used in other domains, sea, air. How do we build coalitions among countries regarding what’s responsible state behavior in cyberspace and what’s irresponsible because it’s one global commons at the end of the day. Many countries signed up for the United Nations voluntary norms for peacetime, which include a number of norms, and that was signed in both 2015 and 2019. One of those includes not disrupting critical services. And as such, in order to make forms actually be enforced, it requires countries and as big of a coalition as possible to call out behavior that’s not in alignment with those norms, and when possible to impose consequences. So that’s the reason that when we saw the Iranian government’s attack on the Albanian government, really disrupting Albanian government services for quite a period of time to their citizens, we and other countries came together to call out that activity, to say to the Iranians – to attribute it to the Iranians, and then to impose consequences. The Albanian government imposed consequences, we, the U.S., sanctioned the chief and deputy of an Iranian entity as well. And we do that as part of building cyber deterrence. It won’t happen in one or two cases. It happens if repeatedly, quickly, we did this far more quickly than in the past. Also, to achieve those strategic goals of enforcing international cyber norms. But if we do this repeatedly, as a community of countries, we believe that can build cyber deterrence.

VOA: The fact of the matter is, as you’re trying to build these international cyber regimes, there is no consensus at the U.N. Security Council, obviously Russia and China are a part of it. There are U.N. frameworks that cannot be enforced. So under these circumstances, how do you move forward?

NEUBERGER: So Russia is one of the countries who signed the 2015/2019 Governmental Group of Experts norms. So countries that have agreed to those norms, the key we believe is enforcing those norms. And we believe, as I mentioned, that it’s each time, time by time, pointing to countries when they conduct behavior that’s not aligned with those norms, and then continuing to deepen that coalition so that more countries join it, we do it more quickly, and then we eventually mature to also impose consequences. So we believe it will take some time, but those are the steady steps we’re taking along with partners and allies.

VOA: And so that is behind the strategy of this name and shame that you’re applying?

NEUBERGER: It’s part of a broader strategic effort of moving to where we say, in this global shared space, that is cyberspace, where we need collective defense. One key aspect is, as you noted, improving cybersecurity resilience, locking our digital doors, one key aspect is gaining agreement among countries of what is not appropriate behavior – the framework for responsible state behavior in cyberspace and gaining agreement among more countries to enforce those.

VOA: Beyond your Western allies, is there an understanding of the need to do this from, you know, the rest of the world?

NEUBERGER: We believe so, because in many ways, the weaker countries are the ones who are most vulnerable to being coerced via cyberattacks on their government systems, cyberattacks on companies or theft of intellectual property in that way. So we believe it’s in all countries’ interests, whether large or small, because we’ve all digitized. Clearly, some of us have digitized more than others, but we’ve all digitized to where there’s risk to our citizens if critical services are disrupted or if governments are disrupted in moments of crisis.

VOA: I’m going to go back to Iran and Armenia real quick. Groups associated with Iran penetrated various systems in Armenia, including the prime minister’s emails. Are you concerned that Iran may have gained access to sensitive NATO data via this breach? I mean we also heard about Portugal recently where hundreds of NATO documents may have been stolen as well.

NEUBERGER: So clearly, good cybersecurity practices are needed among all NATO members, right? Every member of NATO has to recognize that they bring risks to the broader member if they don’t put in place adequate cybersecurity practices. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been working very closely in the NATO context in terms of cybersecurity, and to build incident response capability at NATO to mature NATO cyber capabilities, because, as I mentioned earlier, clearly more work needs to be done. You’ve cited a couple of examples that highlight the need for it. I think there’s now a much deeper recognition at NATO and a much deeper recognition to bring allies together to have in place common thresholds of cybersecurity, for important information.

VOA: And still on NATO, as a NATO ally both Albania and Portugal are technically protected under the collective defense principle. So can you explain what the administration’s view of NATO’s principle, an attack on one is an attack on all, in terms of cyber warfare? At what point does a cyberattack merit a counterattack? Are there any criteria? Is there a red line?

NEUBERGER: So this is an area of evolving policy. It’s a very new area. You’ve seen NATO’s policy that one or more cyberattacks could rise to the level of an armed attack. Clearly, that’s a very high threshold of what that is. The work we’re doing at NATO is focused on, first, cybersecurity resilience. There’ll be a NATO Cyber Defense Pledge conference in Rome that will focus both on what are the standards that NATO members have in place for their critical systems, building an incident response capability at NATO so if an ally is attacked, there is a NATO capability that countries can come together and virtually offer support, as well as then using that as an alliance to enforce international norms…

VOA: Great.

NEUBERGER: … but that’s an area we’re still working to evolve.

VOA: One last question on behalf of the VOA audience who may live in countries where there’s not a lot of internet penetration. Why should they care about cybersecurity?

NEUBERGER: In each of our lives, there’s data that’s really important to us, and there is information related to our work, and our country’s economies that are important to the continued growth of our economies and jobs. So there’s easy steps we can take to ensure that our data is safe and, frankly, our families and our children are safe online as well. And that’s really the core reason: that there’s really more – there is connectivity. Countries want to be connected because of the opportunities, the jobs, the commerce that it enables, so building security in from the beginning is the best way to be safe online.

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At UN, Security Council Members Reject Putin’s Annexation Plans

U.N. Security Council members on Thursday condemned Russia for escalating the war in Ukraine, criticizing its mobilization of more troops and President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons.

“Every council member should send a clear message that these reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a special session of the council’s foreign ministers held on the sidelines of the General Assembly’s annual gathering.

“This is a war of annexation. A war of conquest,” Britain’s new Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said, “to which President Putin now wants to send even more of Russia’s young men and women, making peace even less likely.”

Putin announced Wednesday that he is calling up 300,000 more troops for his “special military operation” in Ukraine.

“Yesterday, Putin announced mobilization. But what he really announced before the whole world was his defeat,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “You can draft 300,000 or 500,000 people, but he will never win this war. Today, every Ukrainian is a weapon, ready to defend Ukraine and the principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter.”

The Russian president has also announced plans to hold referenda in four occupied parts of Ukraine in an apparent attempt to annex them.

“It is an attempt to change internationally recognized borders by use of force — and no sham referendums can change that basic fact,” Ireland’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Minister Simon Coveney said. “It cannot be allowed to stand.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the council that the latest developments are “dangerous and disturbing.”

“The idea of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, has become a subject of debate,” he said. “This in itself is totally unacceptable.”

Allies’ discomfort

Even Russia’s allies expressed their growing unease with the war’s direction.

“The trajectory of the Ukraine conflict is a matter of profound concern for the entire international community,” Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said. “The future outlook appears even more disturbing. The nuclear issue is a particular anxiety.”

China’s foreign minister urged the parties to resume talks without preconditions.

“Include reasonable concerns into negotiations and put feasible options on the table so that talks can produce results and bring about peace,” Wang Yi said. He also urged the parties to “exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not listen to the criticism of his counterparts, leaving his deputy and a junior ambassador to fill his seat during most of the three-hour meeting. He showed up only to deliver his remarks.

Lavrov did not address the military mobilization or Putin’s latest nuclear threats. Of the referenda, he said they are the consequence of “Russo-phobic” statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who he said told people who feel they are Russian to go to Russia.

“I think the decisions that have been adopted by a whole range of regions of Ukraine about conducting referendums are the result of his advice,” Lavrov said of the planned votes in the south and east of Ukraine.

“We have no doubt that Ukraine has become a completely totalitarian, Nazi-like state where the norms of international humanitarian law are trampled on,” he added.

Accountability

Thursday’s meeting was originally called to discuss the atrocities that have come to light in Ukrainian cities after Russian troop withdrawals.

Mass graves have been found in several cities, including Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol and most recently Izium.

In April, Russian troops were driven out of Bucha, leading to the discovery of mass graves with hundreds of bodies.

Lavrov told council members that Bucha was a “propaganda operation,” and there is “no doubt in anyone’s mind” that it was staged.

The International Criminal Court has been mandated to investigate possible mass crimes in Ukraine. Chief prosecutor Karim Khan has conducted three field visits.

“When I went to Bucha and went behind St. Andrews Church, the bodies I saw were not fake,” he told the council.

In May, the ICC deployed teams of investigators to the country. He said the picture is troubling.

“One has seen a variety of destruction, of suffering and harm that fortifies my determination and my previous finding that there are reasonable grounds to believe the crimes within the jurisdiction of the court have been committed,” he said.

“Morally and politically, Russia has already lost the war,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the council. “And increasingly, it is losing on the battlefield, as well. Ukraine will prevail.”

Speaking at another event about accountability, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general said his office is investigating more than 35,000 war-related crimes, including attacks on civilian infrastructure, indiscriminate shelling, murders, torture, sexual violence and forced mobilization.

“These numbers will increase as we de-occupy towns and cities in the east and south of the country and new crimes are revealed,” Andriy Kostin said.

In his video speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Zelenskyy called for a special tribunal to be established to punish Russia and demanded financial compensation for the destruction its invasion has caused.

Peace calls

In March, the International Court of Justice ruled that Russia had wrongfully claimed a genocide in Ukraine to justify its invasion and ordered it to suspend its military operation. Russia has rejected the court’s jurisdiction.

The U.N. General Assembly also overwhelmingly demanded on March 2 that Russia immediately and unconditionally stop its military operations and withdraw its troops from the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.

At the Security Council, Mexico’s foreign minister offered a proposal from his president to form a committee of nations to support U.N. mediation efforts to end the war. Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon said it would include several leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis.

“The objective would be very clear: generating new mechanisms for dialogue and creating additional spaces for mediation that foster trust, reduce tensions and open the path to lasting peace,” he said.

After the council meeting, Ukraine’s foreign minister said he would discuss the proposal with Ebrard at a meeting later in the day.

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Italy Poised to Elect First Female Leader Amid Concerns Over Neo-Fascist Roots

Italians head to the polls this Sunday to choose a new government, after the collapse of the ruling coalition led by Mario Draghi.

A right-wing party with past links to fascism looks set to win the most votes, raising concerns among allies.

Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is leading the polls with around 25% of the vote. The 45-year-old is on course to become Italy’s first female prime minister. She has a simple campaign message.

“My greatest desire is to lift up, to lift our nation up again from decline,” Meloni told Reuters in a recent interview.

Neo-fascism

Brothers of Italy traces its roots to neo-fascism after 1945. In her teenage years, Meloni was a far-right activist who praised fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. She says she has changed.

“When the election campaign opens, the fascist alarm goes off. As you can understand, it’s quite ridiculous to retrieve videos of what I thought when I was 15, 16 or 17,” Meloni said.

Meloni has overseen a sixfold increase in support for her party since the last election.

“In part it’s about her policy platform, her socially conservative views, her economic views — which are also quite social in a way in terms of, for example, raising people’s pensions or benefits,” said analyst Luigi Scazzieri of the Centre for European Reform.

“But it’s also in large part due to her own personal appeal. And I would single out here, for example, her way of talking, which is very down to earth. It’s very effective in connecting with ordinary voters,” Scazzieri added. “Finally, she also benefits from not having been anywhere near government for the past 10 years, and so she can credibly say that she represents something new.”

That’s not true of her likely coalition partners.

Salvini, Berlusconi

Among the coalition partners is Matteo Salvini, the outspoken populist former interior minister and leader of the League Party. While in government, he oversaw a crackdown on migrants arriving on Italy’s southern shores from North Africa.

He is currently on trial on kidnapping charges stemming from an incident in 2019 in which he is accused of preventing more than 100 migrants who were rescued by a charity vessel from landing in Italian ports, which he denies. Salvini has pledged further tougher border controls if his party enters government again.

Political veteran Silvio Berlusconi, who turns 86 four days after the election, will also likely be part of the right-wing coalition as leader of the Forza Italia party. He was thrown out of office 10 years ago after a sex scandal and was stripped of his Senate seat in 2013 over a tax fraud case. He has survived major heart surgery and prostate cancer. In 2021, he nearly died from COVID-19.

On the campaign trail, all three members of the likely right-wing coalition have launched attacks on the European Union and pledged to stand up for Italy’s national interests in Brussels.

The European Union fears Italy could become a political headache, Scazzieri said. The fears are partly due to “the state of Italy’s economy — the fact that its public debt is over 150% of GDP,” he said. “There’s also concerns because of Meloni’s past in the post-fascist Italian social movement, of whether she might have a very authoritarian streak — for example, whether Italy might become more like Hungary and Poland.”

However, Scazzieri said, the EU fears may be unfounded.

“If you read the coalition program, it’s quite clear that they tried to present a very moderate face. They make very clear that this is a government that will stick to its obligations in the EU, in the euro and in NATO,” he told VOA. “The reality is that Italy can ill afford confrontation with the EU because of the relative weak state of its economy.”

Russia-Ukraine

In the past, the Italian far right has had close links to Moscow. However, Meloni has repeatedly stated her support for Ukraine.

“Our standing in the Western field is crystal clear, as we have demonstrated once again by condemning — without ifs and buts — Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine and by helping, from the opposition, to strengthen Italy’s position in European and international forums,” Meloni said in a campaign video on August 10.

For many Italians, the economy, jobs and the rising cost of living are the biggest concerns. Food banks report a sharp rise in the number of people needing help just to survive.

In Italy’s south, economic prospects have long lagged behind the richer north. Antonio Mela, a retired barman from the city of Salerno in Campania, started visiting the local soup kitchen run by the Catholic charity Caritas after the price of food increased sharply in recent months.

“I have a very small pension. I pay the rent, the electricity bill, and then I’ve got nothing left over for food. That’s the situation,” Mela told Agence France-Presse.

The centrist coalition led by former Prime Minister Enrico Letta is trailing in the polls by around 15%. The bloc insists it can still win.

The government that emerges from Sunday’s vote will be Italy’s 70th administration since 1945. Many observers say the coalition led by Meloni is already showing signs of political instability — and Italy could soon face another election.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

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Possible Sanction Risk Forces Turkish Banks to Act on Russian Payment System

Two private banks in Turkey suspended their use of Russian payment system Mir earlier this week following warning signals from the United States. 

The system, a rival to the Belgium-based SWIFT network, is not directly targeted by sanctions. But U.S. officials say there is a worry that Russia is expanding its use of Mir to try to evade sanctions. Experts say banks that allow the expanded use of Mir could trigger secondary sanctions. 

Reuters news agency reports the issue is expected to be discussed Friday at a meeting of top officials including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Turkey’s largest private lender, Is Bankasi, said on Monday that it halted the use of the Russian payment system while it assessed the new guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

Denizbank, another private lender in Turkey, said on the same day that it was no longer able to provide service for the Russian payment system Mir. Denizbank, currently owned by Emirates NBD, was controlled by Russian Sberbank until 2019.  

‘Heightened risk’ 

The decision by two banks announced within hours of each other follows additional sanctions and further guidance by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, known as OFAC. 

Responsible for enforcing economic sanctions designated by the U.S., OFAC said in a statement earlier this month that Russia is trying to find new ways to process payments in response to crippling western financial sanctions. 

“Directly and indirectly, Russia’s financial technocrats have supported the Kremlin’s unprovoked war. Today’s designations target those efforts,” the statement said. 

Although the two Russian financial systems themselves are not currently blocked entities under the Russian Harmful Foreign Activities Sanctions Regulations, Treasury has warned banks that expanded agreements with them risk supporting Russia’s efforts to evade U.S. sanctions. 

Sanctions evasion concern 

The Mir payment system was developed by Russia in 2014 as an alternative to the rival SWIFT payments messaging service that supports payments in more than 200 countries. Mir further expanded after two credit card giants, Mastercard and Visa, blocked services to Russian financial institutions in compliance with Western sanctions. 

When asked about their reaction to the Turkish bank’s suspension, a senior administration official said in a statement to VOA that the steps these Turkish banks took “make a lot of sense.” 

“Cutting off Mir is one of the best ways to protect a bank from the sanctions risk that comes from doing business with Russia,” the senior official said Tuesday. 

U.S. officials say they expect more banks to cut off Mir, “because they don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of the coalition’s sanctions.” 

Experts speaking to VOA say the OFAC guidance aims to prevent the systems from being used to evade U.S. sanctions. 

They say the recent move by Turkey’s two banks to suspend Mir reflects their effort to avoid any possible sanctions risk as the West ramps up economic measures against Russia. 

State Department’s former coordinator for sanctions policy, Daniel Fried, who crafted U.S. sanctions against Russia following its aggression in Ukraine in 2014, told VOA that the two Turkish banks were “acting rationally in an abundance of caution.” 

Fried, who is also the former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and currently a senior fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said the OFAC guidance indicates “there is a degree of risk” for dealing with Mir. 

Timothy Ash, an emerging market analyst with London-based Bluebay Asset Management, thinks that the two banks have realized that the business might not be worth the risk of getting caught in possible secondary sanctions. 

Three other lenders in Turkey — Halkbank, Vakıf Bank and Ziraat Bank, which are all state owned — are also using Mir. 

Halkbank is already tied up in a case where U.S. prosecutors accuse the bank of evading sanctions against Iran. The case has been one of the issues straining U.S.-Turkish relations. 

“The state-owned banks will take the lead from the government,” Ash said in the comments he sent to VOA on Wednesday. “Maybe the Turkish government will just limit Mir transactions through that institution to limit broader risks and damage to the Turkish banking system.” 

Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University, who served on former President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors, said it’s hard to predict whether the three Turkish state banks will also drop the system. 

He told VOA that cutting off Mir completely might indirectly impede Russian visitors at a time when Turkey needs the revenue. 

System popular with Russian visitors 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to call-up 300,000 reservists on Wednesday has sparked an exodus of thousands from the country. 

According to Russia’s popular flight booking platform, Aviasales, direct flights from Moscow to Turkey’s Istanbul and Armenian capital Yerevan were sold out on Wednesday.

Russian payment system Mir is frequently used by Russian tourists in Turkey. 

The Moscow Times reported earlier this week that the Russian association of tour operators, ATOR, recommended Russians travel to Turkey with cash in hand due to “shrinking card payment options.” 

Pressure expected to grow 

According to a Financial Times report last week, Brussels is also preparing to express its concerns about Russian-sanctions evasion risks for Turkish officials. 

EU’s financial services commissioner, Mairead McGuinnes, is expected to visit Turkey next month. 

Former U.S. sanctions coordinator Fried predicts the United States is going to devote a lot of sources to “drying up the channels of Russians.” 

“I think the pressure from the U.S. to go after sanctions evaders will grow. The countries in Central Asia and South Caucuses will start to pay more attention to what their banks are doing to avoid falling afoul of sanctions,” he told VOA. 

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service. 

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Women in Turkey Protest Iranian Woman’s Death

A group of Iranians living in Istanbul and Turkish citizens gathered Wednesday in front of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in Tehran.

Istanbul police, who on Tuesday repeatedly dispersed groups that gathered in Taksim Square, watched the action from afar.

During the demonstration, at least three women cut their hair to protest the treatment of Amini, who was detained by Iran’s morality police because she didn’t wear her headscarf correctly and therefore her hair was showing.  She later died while in custody.

Protesters shouted slogans in Persian, Turkish and Kurdish. The Turkish chants included, “We do not keep silent, we do not fear, we do not obey,” and “My body, my decision.”

The Persian and Kurdish slogans included, “Women live freely” and “We do not want a mullah regime.”

Banners carried by the group of about 300 people included harsh criticism against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian regime.

Mahdi Sağlar, one of the Iranians who participated in the protest, has been living and working in Turkey for 20 years.

“They beat a girl to death because her hair was showing,” Sağlar told VOA Turkish. “Their own children dress as they want in Europe and America, they behave as they want, but in Iran, they arrested her because her hair is out, and they killed her by causing a brain hemorrhage with a blow to the brain at the police station. We are here to protest this. Our citizens in Iran are protesting here on the street as well.”

Gelare Abdi, another Iranian protester, said that although she loves her homeland very much, she can’t live in her country due to heavy pressure.

“I need freedom,” she said. “But I have no freedom in Iran. I have been here in Turkey for two years out of necessity. … They killed Mahsa because her hair was showing a small forelock. She was just 22 years old. I am also a woman and I want freedom.”

This story originated with VOA’s Turkish Service.

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US City Rushes to Help Sister City in Southwestern Ukraine

Chrystia Sonevytsky of Arlington, Virginia, says she has always felt a connection with Ukraine, where her roots are. She successfully advocated for a sister city agreement between Arlington and Ivano-Frankivsk in southwestern Ukraine, and the two forged a partnership in 2011. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Arlington was quick to offer help. Maxim Moskalkov has the story. VOA footage by David Gogokhia.

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North Korea Denies Selling Weapons to Russia

North Korea on Thursday denied sending weapons to Russia, accusing the United States of spreading rumors about such a sale to tarnish Pyongyang’s image.

U.S. officials earlier this month said Russia was in the process of “purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use on the battlefield in Ukraine.”

In a statement posted in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a North Korean defense ministry official rejected the U.S. accusation.

“We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them,” said the vice director general of the North Korean defense ministry’s General Bureau of Equipment, according to KCNA.

“We warn the U.S. to stop making reckless remarks pulling up the DPRK and to keep its mouth shut,” he added, using an abbreviation for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Earlier this month, a senior Russian diplomat also rejected the allegation as fake.

U.S. officials did not provide any evidence of the arms sale and did not confirm whether the transaction was ever completed. However, many Western analysts said such a transaction would make sense.

Not only does Russia likely need to replenish its reserve weapons stockpiles following six months of fighting, Moscow is also searching for more international support for its invasion of Ukraine.

According to U.S. officials, Russia’s alleged weapons purchase indicates Moscow suffers from severe supply shortages because of international sanctions put in place following Russia’s invasion.

Russia is also struggling to hold territory, after Western-backed Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive earlier this month.

Over the past several months, Russia has touted closer ties with North Korea.

Earlier this month, Russian state media reported that Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine are in negotiations to bring North Korean builders to the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Such a deal would violate United Nations Security Council resolutions related to hiring North Korean workers overseas. U.N. sanctions also prohibit the export of North Korean weapons. The sanctions were passed in response to North Korea’s development of a nuclear weapons program.

If Russia were to move ahead with either the weapons or labor deal, it would likely reflect a major shift in Moscow’s approach to North Korea sanctions, signaling an effective end to the U.N. sanctions regime against Pyongyang, analysts have warned.

In its statement Thursday, North Korea’s defense ministry reiterated that Pyongyang does not acknowledge the U.N. resolutions. Every country, it said, has the right to develop and export its own weapons.   

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EU Pledges Military Support for Ukraine, Considers New Russian Sanctions

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said EU foreign ministers have agreed to continue and increase their military support for Ukraine and to study a new package of sanctions targeting Russian individuals and certain sectors of the Russian economy.

Borrell told reporters late Wednesday after convening a special ministerial meeting in New York that the details of the sanctions package still need to be determined by EU representatives, but that he is sure there will be unanimous support.

He said it was important for the ministers to meet and send a “powerful message” on the same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization of his country’s military reserves, and that Putin is “trying to destroy Ukraine.”

Borrell said that in addition to “the immense suffering brought by the Russian aggression upon the Ukrainian people, Russia has chosen to further extend the cost of war also for their own Russian population.”

He said Putin’s apparent reference to Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons if necessary to protect itself represented “an irresponsible and cynical attempt to undermine our steadfast support to Ukraine.”

“These threats jeopardize in an unprecedented scale international peace and security,” Borrell said.  “But they will not shake our determination.  They will not shake our resolve, our unity to stand by Ukraine and our comprehensive support to Ukraine’s ability to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty as long as it takes.”

Putin said in a televised address Wednesday the mobilization of reserves, which followed Ukrainian gains in a counteroffensive in northeastern Ukraine, is necessary to protect Russia’s homeland and sovereignty.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military would be calling up 300,000 reservists.

Putin said the West is trying to weaken and destroy Russia, and that his country will “use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”

“In its aggressive anti-Russian policy, the West has crossed every line,” he said. “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”

Putin also reiterated Russia’s goal in its now seven-month-old invasion of Ukraine is to “liberate” Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, saying the people there do not want to be part of Ukraine.

The separatist leaders of the Moscow-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the Donbas said Tuesday they are planning to hold votes starting Friday for the territories to declare themselves as part of Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed what he called “Russia’s attempts to stage new sham referenda.”

“The situation on the front line clearly indicates that the initiative belongs to Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Tuesday. “Our positions do not change because of the noise or any announcements somewhere. And we enjoy the full support of our partners in this.”

Since early September, Kyiv’s forces have swiftly recaptured large swaths of land in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine that Russian troops took over in the early weeks of the war. The Russian-occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine and the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region are also voting on becoming part of Russia.

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

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Biden Condemns Russia’s War Before UN as Putin Escalates Threats

US President Joe Biden called out Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations as the Russian president significantly escalated war efforts and threatened nuclear retaliation. White House Correspondent Anita Powell, who is traveling with Biden, reports from New York.

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Ukraine Takes on Urgency at UNGA

Russia’s war in Ukraine took on new urgency Wednesday at the gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, following a major escalation from President Vladimir Putin.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation early Wednesday.

In New York, President Joe Biden said such “overt nuclear threats” show a “reckless disregard” for Moscow’s responsibilities under nonproliferation rules.

Biden also criticized Putin’s plans to mobilize 300,000 military reservists and to hold referenda in four Ukrainian regions where his troops hold some territory.

“This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are,” Biden told a packed assembly hall.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was calling an urgent meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers Wednesday night in New York, following what he said was a “major escalation” by Putin.

“By the threat of using nuclear weapons, he is trying to intimidate Ukraine and all countries that support Ukraine,” Borrell told reporters on the sidelines of the General Assembly. “But he will fail, he has failed, and he will fail again.”

He said the international community cannot accept such a threat and that leaders gathered at the U.N. this week must react.

New sanctions?

As for the European Union, he said the bloc would continue its military and economic support to Kyiv and would consider new sanctions on Russia, especially if it went ahead with the referenda.

Borrell said he had no plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has arrived in New York. Lavrov will attend a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, where he is likely to clash with his Western counterparts.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was allowed to address the assembly in a prerecorded video.

He told the international community that a crime has been committed against his nation and Russia must be punished for it. He laid out five preconditions for peace, which include financial reparations from Moscow.

“Punishment for aggression, protection of life, restoration of security and territorial integrity, security guarantees and determination to defend oneself,” he said in English. “This is the formula of crime and punishment.”

His wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, was at Ukraine’s table in the General Assembly.

“We are ready for peace, but true, honest and fair peace,” he emphasized.

Zelenskyy’s speech was met with lengthy applause, with some delegates rising to their feet.

Nuclear safety

Meanwhile, international concerns continue around nuclear safety in Ukraine. There was fresh shelling around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Wednesday and a few days earlier around another nuclear station, the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said he has met separately in New York with both the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia to discuss the parameters for a safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia plant.

“There is, I would say above differences that do exist, there is a conviction that the establishment of this zone is indispensable,” Grossi told reporters. “Let’s be clear: This nuclear power plant is being shelled, so you need to protect it in some way. We have the means, the technical knowledge as the IAEA, to know what needs to be done and how to do it.”

He said he is working with Ukraine and Russia on the “very concrete aspects” of what is required to establish the zone, and each side will focus on what is feasible for them.

The nuclear watchdog chief said he hopes to travel to both countries soon to continue discussions.

“Given the urgency of the situation, and the gravity of what’s going on in the field, we have to move fast,” he said.

Prisoner exchange

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchange of more than 250 prisoners of war between Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday.

“This is no small feat, but much more remains to be done to ease the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said. He added that Guterres will continue to support any additional efforts that may be undertaken, “including further exchanges under an ‘all for all formula’ approach.”

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At UNGA, Biden Condemns Russia’s War on Ukraine as Putin Escalates Threats 

U.S. President Joe Biden called out Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, as the Russian leader significantly escalated war efforts and threatened nuclear retaliation.

Speaking to the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) in New York Wednesday morning, Biden used most of his address to condemn Moscow.

“Let us speak plainly. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council invaded its neighbor, attempted to erase a sovereign state from the map,” Biden said. “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter, no more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor.”

In the biggest escalation of the Ukraine war since Russia’s February 24 invasion, hours before world leaders gathered at the U.N. headquarters, Putin in Moscow announced the partial mobilization of his country’s military, calling up 300,000 reservists and vowing he would consider all options to protect what he considers Russian territory, raising concerns of a nuclear attack.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said in a televised address to the nation.

Biden called out Putin’s “overt nuclear threats against Europe” as a “reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the Non-Proliferation regime” – the various international treaties that prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.

“And the Kremlin is organizing a sham referendum to try to annex parts of Ukraine, an extremely significant violation of the U.N. Charter,” he added, referring to Putin’s move to hold referendums on four occupied Ukrainian regions to join Russia, widely seen as a prelude to annexation of those territories.

The Russian leader’s announcement came after his troops suffered battlefield setbacks in northeastern Ukraine and came at a fortuitous time for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Western allies, who were concerned that war fatigue had set in among U.N. members gathering this week, observers noted.

“You never want to talk about escalation, particularly when they’re vague nuclear threats, as a positive thing,” said David Bosco, who teaches international studies with a focus on the U.N. Security Council at Indiana University. “But from a diplomatic standpoint for Ukraine and for Ukraine’s backers, I do think this helped sharpen the focus on that conflict and also probably had the effect of isolating Russia to an even greater degree than it’s already been isolated,” Bosco told VOA.

Zelenskyy was to deliver remarks Wednesday afternoon. Last week, a majority of the General Assembly’s 193 member states allowed the Ukrainian leader an exception to U.N. rules that say speeches in this year’s high-level session must be delivered in person.

Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria supported Russia in voting against allowing Zelenskyy’s video speech. Since Putin is not attending in person, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will make the address on behalf of his country on Saturday, as ministers are given later speaking slots than leaders.

Traditionally, as host, U.S. presidents always speak second after Brazil, but Biden forfeited his Tuesday speaking slot as he was returning from London, where he attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

China

In his UNGA remarks, Biden called out Beijing’s “horrible abuses against pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities” in China’s Xinjiang region and “the increased repression of women and girls by the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Human rights groups have accused China of detaining more than 1 million minorities in camps, restricting freedom of movement, and engaging in torture, forced sterilization and sexual violence under the guise of Beijing’s campaign against religious extremism in Xinjiang. China has denied the accusations.

Biden touched on other global conflicts, including the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the violence in Haiti and political oppression in Venezuela, and reiterated support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian people.

As negotiations stalled, Biden said the United States will never allow Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons. He also said the U.S. stands with “the brave women of Iran,” in reference to protests this week over the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, under suspicious circumstances after she was arrested in Tehran by the morality police – a unit that enforces headscarves and strict dress codes for women.

Authorities have denied that Amini suffered any mistreatment at their hands and say heart problems caused her death. Her family said she had no history of heart trouble.

Security Council reform

In a jab to Russia, which has used its veto power to block Security Council action on Ukraine, Biden said UNSC members including the United States should refrain from wielding the veto, “except in rare, extraordinary situations,” to ensure that the council remains credible and effective.

“Russia’s use of the veto in the Ukraine situation has really brought new attention to veto and it’s obviously very unpopular with the U.N. members as a whole,” Bosco said.

In his remarks, Biden threw his support behind expansion of the membership of the Security Council “to become more inclusive, so they can better respond to the needs of today’s world.”

“This includes permanent seats for those nations we have long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.

By showing that it’s open to reform, the administration hopes it can put China and Russia in a corner, said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. will want to highlight the fact that they are blocking improvements to the U.N.,” Gowan told VOA.

Observers have voiced skepticism that progress on the decades-long UNSC reform debate is imminent. The U.N. Charter must first be amended, which requires a two-thirds vote of its members, and any reform must be agreed to by the five permanent members with veto power.

Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, noted that since 2009, Russia has cast 26 vetoes and that in 12 cases it was joined by China, while the U.S. has used its veto only four times since 2009.

Food security and global health

Global food prices have dramatically increased because of supply chain disruptions and rising energy and fertilizer costs brought upon by the pandemic and exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden announced more than $2.9 billion would be used to address global food insecurity, in addition to the $6.9 billion already committed by the administration this year, according to the White House.

“A multiyear drought in the Horn of Africa has created a dire humanitarian emergency, with parts of Somalia at risk of famine for the second time in just over a decade. This new announcement of $2.9 billion will save lives through emergency interventions and invest in medium- to long-term food security assistance in order to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations from the escalating global food security crisis,” the White House said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the U.S. convened a Global Food Security Summit co-chaired by Secretary of State Antony Blinken with the leaders of the European Union, African Union and Spain, and hosted with Colombia, Germany, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Beyond aid, the world needs a much more robust international agenda to meet the U.N. goal of ending hunger by 2030, which it is currently not on track to meet, said Rob Vos, economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“We do need a lot more investments in food systems for the coming decades to make them more resilient,” Vos said in an interview with VOA, “to monitor much more closely the risk of food crisis from breaking out.”

Later Wednesday, Biden delivers remarks at a Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria replenishment conference. His administration has proposed a $6 billion pledge over the next three years to meet the $18 billion the Global Fund is seeking to fight the three diseases.

The Global Fund has helped reduce AIDS-related deaths by 70 percent and new infections by 54 percent, but the gains are fragile, according to the ONE Campaign, a group working to end preventable diseases by 2030.

“In just two years, two decades of progress against AIDS slammed on the brakes as COVID-19 and other global crises took center stage,” ONE Campaign’s president, Tom Hart, said in a statement.

ONE’s analysis shows that falling just $1 billion short could result in 25 million more new cases of the three diseases in countries where the Global Fund invests from 2024 to 2026.

VOA’s Michael Lipin contributed to this report.

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VOA Gets Exclusive Access to Vessel in Odesa Preparing to Export Ukrainian Grain

On Thursday, a ship carrying Ukrainian grain to Afghanistan is scheduled to leave Odesa port. Earlier this week, VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze got exclusive access to the port and a vessel during the process of grain loading. VOA footage by Eugene Shynkar.

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UK Eases Pressure on Business by Halving Energy Bills This Winter

Britain pledged on Wednesday to cap wholesale electricity and gas costs for businesses at less than half the market rate from next month, helping relieve the pressure of soaring energy costs but adding to the government’s fast-rising spending.

Wholesale prices for electricity will be capped at about 211 pounds ($239) per megawatt hour (MWh) and for gas at 75 pounds per MWh, compared to forecast market rates of 600 pounds and 180 pounds respectively.

“We have stepped in to stop businesses collapsing, protect jobs and limit inflation,” finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng said.

Wholesale gas and electricity prices in Europe surged after Russia invaded Ukraine and have remained volatile since.

Groups representing businesses from pubs to steelmakers welcomed the intervention, saying the government had thrown a lifeline to companies battling to survive.

The government did not publish any estimate of the cost, but reports have put the price of six months of support at up to 42 billion pounds, on top of more than 100 billion pounds for a previously announced scheme to help households.

The final unit prices will be confirmed on Sept. 30.

Suppliers will be compensated for the reduction in wholesale gas and electricity unit prices that they are passing onto non-domestic customers, the government said.

After weeks of political stasis while the governing Conservative Party elected a new leader and the country mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth, Kwarteng is due to give a fiscal statement on Friday.

This is expected to set out some detail on how he will pay for the energy scheme while at the same time delivering on promises to cut taxes, although the total cost of the energy scheme will depend on market prices over the coming months.

Investors say Friday’s statement will be a critical test of confidence in British public finances as borrowing costs rise at the same time as a commitment to higher spending and banking on accelerated economic growth to pay for it.

Kwarteng said on Wednesday he had pledged to get debt down in the medium term, but it was “absolutely right” to help families and businesses in the face of a major economic shock.

The business energy scheme will initially apply from Oct. 1 to Mar. 31, 2023, for all non-domestic energy users, including charities and the public sector such as schools and hospitals as well as businesses.

The government also announced support for households in Northern Ireland on the same level as the equivalent scheme in the rest of the United Kingdom.

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Putin Announces Mobilization of Russian Military Reserves

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday the partial mobilization of his country’s military reserves in a move that follows Ukrainian gains in a counteroffensive in northeastern Ukraine.

Putin said in a televised address the mobilization is necessary to protect Russia’s homeland and sovereignty.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military would be calling up 300,000 reservists.

Putin said the West is trying to weaken and destroy Russia, and that his country will “use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”

He also reiterated Russia’s goal in its now seven-month-old invasion of Ukraine is to “liberate” Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, saying the people there do not want to be part of Ukraine.

The separatist leaders of the Moscow-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the Donbas said Tuesday they are planning to hold votes starting late this week for the territories to declare themselves as part of Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed what he called “Russia’s attempts to stage new sham referenda.”

“The situation on the front line clearly indicates that the initiative belongs to Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address. “Our positions do not change because of the noise or any announcements somewhere. And we enjoy the full support of our partners in this.”

Referendum voting in the region, populated by many Russian-speaking people, would most likely go in Moscow’s favor.

But any declaration that the territory is part of Russia would not be recognized by either Ukraine or by the United States and its Western allies who have supplied the Kyiv government with billions of dollars in armaments to fend off Moscow’s seven-month invasion.

The White House immediately rejected Russia’s plans for the referendums, saying they may be an effort by Moscow to recruit troops in the region in the wake of its recent defeats on the battlefront.

Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said the referendums violate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity since the lands in question are part of Ukraine. He said Biden in a Wednesday speech at the United Nations General Assembly would issue a “firm rebuke” to Russia for its war against Ukraine.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said, “Sham referendums have no legitimacy and do not change the nature of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This is a further escalation in Putin’s war. The international community must condemn this blatant violation of international law and step up support for Ukraine.”

If Russia were to claim the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces as its own, it could set the stage for an escalation in the fighting if Ukrainian forces try to take them back.

Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk region, said that the “long-suffering people of the Donbas have earned the right to be part of the great country that they always considered their motherland.”

He said the vote will help “restore historic justice that millions of the Russian people were waiting for.”

Since early September, Kyiv’s forces have swiftly recaptured large swaths of land in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine that Russian troops took over in early weeks of the war. Moscow-backed leaders in the Russian-occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine and pro-Russia activists in the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region have also called for referendums on becoming part of Russia.

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

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At UN, Spotlight on Global Consequences of Russia’s War

The global consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were in the spotlight Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly, as the annual debate got underway.

Leaders spoke of the urgency to get fertilizer, in particular, to the world’s farmers at a reasonable price and in time for the planting season, which in some parts of the world has started already.

“Without action now, the global fertilizer shortage will quickly morph into a global food shortage,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of what could lie ahead next year.

He said there are reports of farmers in West Africa and other regions cultivating fewer crops because of the price or lack of availability of fertilizers.

“Fertilizers have become three times as expensive as in 2021,” Senegalese President and African Union Chairperson Macky Sall told a ministerial-level meeting on food security on the sidelines of the debate.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, it has imposed quotas on exports of its fertilizer, saying it wanted enough for its farmers. Moscow is a top fertilizer exporter, and the disruptions and shortages it has created have led to steep price increases on international markets. That has made fertilizer unaffordable for some smaller farmers, with the potential to dramatically decrease their harvests.

This threatens global food security, which is already in a bad way. The U.N. says more than 800 million people worldwide are suffering from hunger.

“Russia must end its illegal war against Ukraine, which has threatened an essential source of the world’s food supply,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told the food summit. “The truth is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to blackmail the international community with a large part of the world’s food needs.”

Despite calls for diplomacy, Russia signaled that it plans to persist, with plans for referendums soon for Luhansk and Donetsk to declare themselves part of Russia, which could set the stage for an escalation of the fighting.

While there are no Western sanctions on either Russian food or fertilizer exports, Moscow claims that there are. A deal signed in Istanbul on July 22 has moved more than 4 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain to international markets and is working to build confidence among shippers, insurers and buyers of Russian grain and fertilizer so they will resume at pre-invasion levels.

Guterres called for the removal of “all remaining obstacles” to the export of Russian fertilizers and their ingredients, including ammonia.

“These products are not subject to sanctions — and we are making progress in eliminating indirect effects,” he said.

Appeals for peace

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative along with the U.N., appealed Tuesday for a diplomatic end to the war.

“We would like to launch an appeal to all the international organizations and the countries of the world to support the peaceful initiatives of Turkey to settle this dispute once and for all,” Erdogan told the assembly. “We need a dignified way out of this crisis and that can be possible only through a diplomatic solution which is rational, which is fair, and which is applicable.”

Neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian leader are in New York this week, and no breakthroughs are expected.

“France obstinately will look for peace,” said President Emmanuel Macron, who has kept diplomatic channels open with President Putin. “Our position is clear, and we want to serve this, and that’s why I am engaging in a dialogue with Russia and have done so since the start of the war and over these past months, and I will continue to head this up.”

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Analysis: China’s Balancing Act on Russia’s War in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise admission at last week’s summit in Uzbekistan that China had “questions and concerns” about what was happening in Ukraine offered the first clue that Beijing is increasingly worried about the war.   

“You’re talking about huge investments either invested by China directly or with China serving as contractors,” said China expert Victor Gao, citing damages to China-invested shipbuilding projects, iron and steel mills, highways and other infrastructure projects. 

What China may have thought would be a quickly fought “military exercise” has turned into a devastating war that has damaged tens of billions of dollars of China’s own investments in the country, driven up global energy and food prices that in turn hurts China’s economy, and complicates China’s balancing act of offering some support to Russia, but not too much, to avoid antagonizing the United States and Europe, according to observers. 

“China is very much damaged in terms of its extensive investment. This gives China more incentives to promote peace. China wants to see the war wrapped up as soon as possible,” added Gao, a professor at China’s Soochow University and vice president of the Center for China and Globalization.  

China’s balancing act 

China has rejected Western calls to condemn the invasion and refused to join international sanctions against Moscow. 

Putin has relied on Beijing for trade in the face of Western sanctions. Based on Chinese customs data, overall exports from Russia rose by more than 50% from January to August when compared to the same period last year. 

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting last week with Putin at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Xi affirmed that “China is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests,” reported China’s state news agency Xinhua. The report also stated Xi “emphasized that China will work with Russia to deepen practical cooperation in trade, agriculture, connectivity and other areas.” 

But China seems to stop short of circumventing sanctions. 

“We have not seen the Chinese provide any material support to Mr. Putin for the war in Ukraine. And we haven’t had any indications that they are violating sanctions,” said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), in a September 16th interview with VOA.     

The US factor 

China cannot afford to distance itself from Russia due to increasing tensions between Beijing and the United States.  

“The Russo-China relationship is postulated vis a vis the U.S.-China relationship,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “If the U.S.-China relationship is getting worse, Russia and China will warm up further. At the moment, the U.S.-China relationship [is] not doing well, so it’s only natural the Russia-China relationship will warm up.”  

At the beginning of September, China joined Russia’s military drills in Russia’s far eastern region. 

“China’s got choices to make. And as we’ve said many times before, we would clearly prefer that the choice they make is to condemn what Mr. Putin is doing in Ukraine … and make clear these concerns that they apparently have about what he’s doing there,” Kirby said in his VOA interview.   

“We’re going to continue to keep the lines of communication open with Beijing, as we must. There are issues of disagreement, clearly, between the United States and China, but there’s also areas where we have said we can, and we should, cooperate on,” said the NSC spokesman. 

Beijing’s considerations 

Reliance on Russia as a geopolitical partner, however, is increasingly presenting a dilemma for Beijing, especially given its stance for peace. 

“I don’t think China will go all out to try to make Russia its really close strategic ally,” said Oh. “Except for its military prowess, it’s nothing much to speak of. Its economy is equivalent to one of the more well-to-do provinces in China, perhaps Guangdong. You might as well have India on your side.”  

Observers expect China to continue to stay the course, refraining from giving outright support to Russia, while calling for an end to the war 

“China is both a friend of Russia as well as a friend with Ukraine. China does have conversations with Russia on one hand and Ukraine on the other hand. … Lots of these things can be done more constructively behind the scenes than in the limelight,” Gao said.   

Central Asia opportunity 

As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, China’s influence in Central Asia seems to be growing, as reflected by last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan, Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and deals signed with other Central Asian countries.  

“Of course, China all along wanted to build an oil pipeline through Central Asia, but because of Russia’s opposition, the plans could not be carried out,” said Simon Chen, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. “But now, China’s plans are closer to being realized.”  

The Central Asian countries link China to the West and are crucial in helping Xi achieve his Belt and Road Initiative — building a modern-day Silk Road to easily transport oil and natural gas to China, as well as send China’s products to Europe and other parts of the world.  

“In Central Asia, China will perhaps benefit [from the Ukraine war], but overall, its economy suffers because of inflation in agricultural goods, high wheat and oil prices. To China, the war is not what it wants,” said Chen. 

Last week, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a deal for a feasibility study to build a long-awaited railroad that would pass through the three countries to Europe, bypassing sanctioned-plagued Russia. 

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Canada Seen Unlikely to Cut Ties With British Monarchy

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, several nations that have long had a British monarch as their head of state are pondering charting a new course to become republics. In the Americas, this includes Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and the Bahamas, following the decision by Barbados to shed the monarchy earlier this year. Republicanism has also been on the rise in Australia, where a vote on leaving the monarchy could be held in coming years, according to some experts.

But what about in Canada, a culturally diverse nation with a substantial proportion of French speakers? Observers say the process for abolishing the monarchy in Canada would be nearly impossible to launch in the short term.

“Abolishing the monarchy would require a feat of political maneuvering that has rarely been seen throughout the years, requiring unanimous agreement among the House of Commons, the Senate and all of the provincial legislatures,” wrote Amanda Connolly from Canada’s Global News, in a September 18 article about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ruling out such an effort in the near future.

Canada’s Indigenous people, who long suffered under colonialism and continue to experience its aftereffects to this day, nevertheless issued several statements of condolences to the British people after the queen’s death.

While not calling for the abolition of the monarchy, Indigenous leaders have expressed concern that King Charles III could be less likely to support them in the process of reconciling the colonial past.

French Canadians are seen as less enamored with the monarchy than many of their English-speaking compatriots. French Canadians trace their history back to the colonization of what is now Canada by France before the British conquered French-held lands and expelled many French-speaking inhabitants.

Robert Lacey is a British historian who wrote The Crown: The Inside History.

“Most English-speaking Canadians will probably accept King Charles as their new head of state,” Lacey told VOA. “But whether French Canadians welcome him seems less certain.”

“French Canadians are generally most indifferent or negative toward the monarchy,” said Philippe Lagasse, who teaches international affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University, speaking with VOA. “This reflects the fact that the monarchy has come to be associated with assimilation, the historical oppression of the French population and, most importantly, a modernizing impulse that accompanied Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960, which saw the [Catholic] church’s influence greatly diminished and Quebec nationalism rise.”

But despite significant pockets of resistance to the monarchy in Canada, Lagasse sees no easy path to ending it.

“The monarchy will endure in Canada as long as it lasts in the United Kingdom,” he said. “The process for ending the monarchy in Canada is so onerous … that the only plausible path to a republic is if the United Kingdom becomes a republic and forces a change on Canada.”

Asked what leaders in Ottawa might think, Lagasse noted, “The reaction is muted at the moment. A lot will depend on the kinds of decisions that the king makes about his role and the Crown’s presence in the realms. If the king courts controversy, that will cause concern. At the moment, though, it is too early to tell.”

Political scientist David Johnson of Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia said whether or not to retain the monarchy is a topic of discussion.

“Some Canadians said, ‘We don’t get to vote on this? We don’t get a say in what happens?’ The answer is no, we don’t get a say in this,” Johnson told VOA. “The monarchy is the natural default mode to the Canadian constitution. If we want to change that we have to rip out the hardware and software and put in new hardware and software.”

He added that republicans outnumber monarchists but that many Canadians are indifferent.

“The problem for the republican movement is to mobilize and work toward a constitutional amendment and that is difficult,” Johnson said. “There has never been a prime minister or premier who came to power on an abolition platform, not even [in] Quebec.”

“The ascension of King Charles III to the throne does not change anything for Canada,” said Vismay Buch, a University of Toronto undergraduate student with an international relations focus. “He will be following the centuries-old tradition of the British Monarch being the Canadian Head of State.”

A poll in April found two-thirds of Canadians viewed Queen Elizabeth II favorably but that 51% did not favor Canada continuing as a constitutional monarchy.

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Opposition Leader: Belarus Not ‘Appendix to Russia’

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is attending this year’s United Nations General Assembly as a member of an unnamed European country’s delegation. In an exclusive interview with VOA, Tsikhanouskaya said Belarus should not be viewed as an “appendix to Russia,” even though “Vladimir Putin wants to drag it back to the Soviet era.” In New York, Igor Tsikhanenka has more.

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With Griner in Jail, WNBA Players Skip Russia in Offseason

Brittney Griner’s highly publicized legal woes in Russia and the country’s invasion of Ukraine has the top WNBA players opting to take their talents elsewhere this offseason.

For the past few decades, Russia has been the preferred offseason destination for WNBA players to compete because of the high salaries that can exceed $1 million and the resources and amenities teams offered them.

That all has come to an abrupt end.

“Honestly my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home,” said Breanna Stewart, a Griner teammate on the Russian team that paid the duo millions. “I think that, you know, now, people want to go overseas and if the money is not much different, they want to be in a better place.”

Griner was arrested in February, then detained and later convicted on drug possession charges amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner was sentenced last month to nine years in prison.

Now, Stewart and other WNBA All-Stars, including Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot — who also have made millions of dollars playing in Russia — are going elsewhere this winter. All three played for Ekaterinburg, the same Russian team as Griner. That club won five EuroLeague titles in the past eight seasons and has been dominant for nearly two decades with former greats DeLisha Milton Jones and Diana Taurasi playing there.

Nearly a dozen WNBA players competed in Russia last winter and none of them are heading back this year.

After the World Cup tournament, Stewart is going to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. Top players can make a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey, much less than their Russian salaries. Playing in Turkey also allows Stewart to be closer to her wife’s family in Spain.

“You want to have a better lifestyle, a better off-the-court experience, and just continue to appreciate other countries,” Stewart said.

Like Stewart, Vandersloot also isn’t headed back to Russia, choosing to play in Hungary where she obtained citizenship in 2016.

“I am Hungarian. I thought it would be special since I haven’t played there since I got the citizenship,” Vandersloot said.

The 33-year-old guard said a lot would have to change before she’d ever consider going back to Russia to play even though she has many fond memories of the Russian people.

“The thing about it is, we were treated so well by our club and made such strong relationships with those people, I would never close the door on that,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”

Jones will be joining Stewart in Turkey, playing for Mersin. The 6-foot-6 Jones said she would consider going back to Russia if things change politically and Griner was back in the U.S.

The Griner situation also is weighing heavily on the minds of young WNBA players.

Rhyne Howard, the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year, is playing in Italy this winter — her first overseas experience. She said was careful when deciding where she wanted to play.

“Everyone’s going to be a bit cautious seeing as this situation is happening,” she said.

It’s not just the American players who are no longer going to Russia. Chicago Sky forward Emma Meesseman, who stars for the Belgium national team, had played in Russia with Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot. She also is headed to Turkey this offseason.

The WNBA has also been trying to make staying home in the offseason a better option for players. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at the WNBA Finals that top players could make up to $700,000 this year between base salary, marketing agreements and award bonuses. While only a select few players could reach that amount, roughly a dozen have decided take league marketing agreements this offseason.

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