Vatican Offers to Mediate End to Ukraine War

Pope Francis is suffering from acute knee pain and won’t preside over this week’s Ash Wednesday celebrations after his doctor ordered him to rest. Despite his health issues, the pope has launched efforts to mediate an end to the war in Ukraine.

Pope Francis will not be presiding over the customary mass for the start of Lent at the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill this year.

The pope’s knee ailment also forced him to cancel travel plans for the first time in his papacy. Francis was scheduled to celebrate mass Sunday in Florence for the closing of a meeting of bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean region.

But knee pain has not stopped the Pope from repeatedly voicing his concern about the developments in Ukraine.

On Friday, he visited the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to express those concerns in person.

The Pope has called for Ash Wednesday this week to serve as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

His worries were voiced again Sunday when he said his “heart is broken” and called for arms to fall silent.

Referring to those in search of refuge as brothers and sisters, the pope made an impassioned appeal for humanitarian corridors to help refugees leave Ukraine.

The Vatican has now said it is prepared to assist in any negotiation aimed at ending the war in the eastern European country. The Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in interviews published in Italian newspapers Monday that the Vatican is offering to facilitate dialogue with Russia. He said there is always space for negotiation.

Earlier, the head of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, announced the pope would not travel after speaking to the Holy Father on the phone.

Bassetti said the pope had given his strong backing to the “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace” meeting in Florence and had wanted to attend but the doctor recommended that he take a “period of greater rest” for his leg.

It remains unclear whether the pope’s current knee problem is linked to previous sciatica conditions that have forced him to cancel some of his public appearances in recent times and has also caused him to limp. Only last month, the 85-year-old pontiff complained of a pain in his leg, saying it was worse when he remained standing.

Pope Francis underwent colon surgery in July in what was considered his most serious health issue since he was elected head of the Catholic Church in March 2013. After spending 10 days in a hospital, he appeared to recover well and soon returned to his daily activities.

Ukraine President Appeals for Immediate EU Accession

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed Monday for the European Union to immediately admit Ukraine to the bloc, as the country battled a Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy posted photographs of himself on social media signing an application to join the 27-member nation EU. In a video, he said, “We appeal to the European Union for the urgent accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure.”

“We are grateful to our partners for being with us,” Zelenskyy said. “But our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure we earned it. I’m sure it’s possible.”

It usually takes years for any country to officially join the EU, part of a multi-step process that often requires nations to make reforms to reach EU standards.

The head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andrii Sybiha, said on his official Facebook page that the documents requesting EU admission “are on the way to Brussels.”

The EU has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has offered military assistance to Kyiv as well as imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia and blocked Russian planes from EU skies.

Ukraine’s request comes after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews in an interview Sunday of Ukraine: “They are one of us, and we want them in.”

However, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, clarified Monday that the EU chief did not mean that Ukraine could join immediately.

He said Von der Leyen “specified that there is a process (for joining the EU). And I think that this is the important point.”

The application for Ukraine to join the EU, even if largely symbolic, is likely to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to bring Ukraine under its influence.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

US Suspends Operations at Embassy in Belarus

The U.S. Department of State Monday announced it has suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Minsk, Belarus, and authorized the voluntary departure of non-emergency employees and family members at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia’s capital, Moscow.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the State Department took the steps due to security and safety issues stemming from “the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine.”

He said the department continually adjusts its posture at embassies and consulates throughout the world based on the local security environment, and the health situation.

Blinken said, “We ultimately have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens, and that includes our U.S. government personnel and their dependents serving around the world.”

Separately, the United States updated its travel advisories for Belarus and Russia to Level 4-“Do Not Travel” status, citing Russia’s military attack on Ukraine. Russia has held troop drills in Belarus, using it as a staging ground to target Ukraine from the north.

Earlier in February, the U.S. embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, relocated operations to the western city of Lyiv amid the Russia-Ukraine tensions.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. Jamie Dettmer also contributed to this report.

Human Rights Council to Hold Urgent Debate on Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The U.N. Human Rights Council has overwhelmingly approved a request to hold an urgent debate later this week on the crisis in Ukraine stemming from the Russian invasion of that country.

The proposal was approved by 29 countries in the 47-member council. Thirteen countries abstained and five – China, Cuba, Eritrea, Russia and Venezuela, voted against the proposal.

The vote took place after an impassioned plea by Yevheniia Filipenko, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. She called on the Council to hold Russia accountable for what she called an unprovoked, unjustified attack on her country.

In just four days, she said the toll of destruction in Ukraine has become devastating. She said 352 people, including 16 children, have been killed, and some 1,700 people have been wounded, including 160 children. She said Russian bombing of civilian infrastructure, roads and bridges has left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity and water and cut off communities.

“Russian forces attempt to sow panic among the population by specifically targeting kindergartens and orphanages, hospitals, and mobile medical aid brigades, thus committing acts that may amount to war crimes. And Ukraine has filed the case against Russia in the International Court of Justice to bring Russia to account,” said Filipenko.

The Russian ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Gennady Gatilov, accused Ukraine of committing multiple atrocities against people living in Ukraine’s southeastern Donetsk and Lukansk regions. He speaks through an interpreter.

Gatilov said, ”Before us we have nothing other than the usual attempt of Kyiv to distract attention, the attention of the international community away from what they have been doing for nearly eight years now, which is the targeted destruction of completely innocent people in Donetsk and Lukansk—women, children and the elderly.”

Since 2014, more than 14,000 people in Donetsk and Luhansk have been killed in fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the two rebel republics a week ago.

Western governments condemned this action. They said Putin’s decision to send so-called peacekeepers to safeguard the sovereignty and independence of this separatist region was a pretext to invade Ukraine.

The Human Rights Council opened a five-week session Monday. It has decided to hold the urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression” on Thursday.

This follows a three-day high-level segment with the participation of heads of state and other dignitaries from more than 140 countries.

Rare Copy of First Novel by African American Woman Donated

A rare version of a book considered the first novel published in the U.S. by a Black woman has returned to her home state of New Hampshire. 

An original first edition of Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black” was recently donated to Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, WMUR-TV reports.  

The book was hand-delivered to the organization by a retired librarian in California who found the novel in a family safe, according to the station.  

The organization plans to display the book at its headquarters in Portsmouth after it undergoes some minor restoration.  

JerriAnne Boggis, the organization’s executive director, said the largely autobiographical work, which Wilson wrote while living in Boston in 1859, represents an act of courage. 

The novel tells the story of Frado, a Black girl who is abused and overworked as the indentured servant to a New England family. 

“She sold them door to door, and all during that time when the Fugitive Slave Act was in place,” Boggis told WMUR-TV. “So, she’s knocking at people’s doors and not even sure if she would be captured and taken into slavery.” 

Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire in 1825 and a statue in the town’s Bicentennial Park honors her. She died in 1900 in a Massachusetts hospital. 

Sanctions on Russia End Aircraft Leases – Affect About Half of Russian Airlines Planes

Asian aircraft lessor BOC Aviation said on Monday that EU sanctions requiring the termination of leases to Russian airlines by March 28 would affect most of its aircraft in Russia as the leasing industry began counting the cost of the rules.

Russian companies have 980 passenger jets in service, of which 777 are leased, according to analytics firm Cirium. Of these, two-thirds, or 515 jets, with an estimated market value of about $10 billion, are rented from foreign firms in the mainly Ireland-based industry.

BOC said it had 18 planes representing 4.5% of its owned fleet based in Russia, placed with Aeroflot subsidiary Pobeda as well as Ural Airlines, S7 Airlines and AirBridgeCargo Airlines. 

In addition, it has another aircraft in its managed fleet on lease to Rossiya Airlines.

“Our policy is to fully comply with all laws applicable to our business,” the lessor said in a statement. “The practical consequences of the new EU sanctions are complex and at the present time we are unable to provide further information.”

AerCap Holdings, the world’s biggest leasing company, has the largest exposure globally to Russia and Ukraine with 152 planes, according to aviation consultancy IBA.

AerCap has a total portfolio of more than 2,000 planes and Russian carriers Aeroflot, S7 Airlines, Rossiya, Azur Air, Ural Airlines, Yamal Airlines and Yakutia Airlines are among its customers, the lessor’s website says.

Other non-Russian lessors with planes in the countries include SMBC Aviation Capital, Air Lease Corp and Aviation Capital Group, IBA said.

Avolon, the world’s second biggest leasing company, has fewer than 20 airplanes in Russia and one or two in Ukraine out of a total fleet of more than 550 aircraft, Chief Executive Domhnal Slattery told Reuters this month.

He said at the time that Avolon was concerned that sanctions on international payment transfers through SWIFT could be disrupted, making it hard for airlines to pay their bills.

Group of Seven (G7) leaders said on Sunday that Western allies had decided to cut off “certain Russian banks” from the SWIFT a secure messaging system to ensure rapid cross-border payments which has become the principal mechanism to financeinternational trade. 

Canada Closes Airspace to All Russian Carriers  

Canada has closed its airspace to all Russian carriers in protest at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ottawa announced Sunday.

But the ban was quickly tested when, according to Canadian officials, a plane operated by Russian airline Aeroflot flew over the country.

Aeroflot flight 111 had departed Miami, Florida, bound for Moscow.

Announcing the measure earlier in the day, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said: “We will hold Russia accountable for its unprovoked attacks against Ukraine.”

The closure, effective immediately, aligned Canada with the vast majority of European countries.

While there had been no direct flights between Canadian and Russian airports, the decision by the world’s second-largest country — Russia is the largest — promised to seriously complicate flights by Aeroflot to or from the United States, as well as to other countries to the south.

Any flight owned, chartered by or used by Russian interests — including private flights — was banned from Canadian skies, transport ministry spokeswoman Valerie Glazer told AFP in an email.

However, the Aeroflot flight “violated the prohibition”, according to a tweet by government agency Transport Canada.

“We are launching a review of the conduct of Aeroflot and the independent air navigation service provider, NAVCAN, leading up to this violation,” it said.

“We will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action and other measures to prevent future violations.”

A growing list of European countries — including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden — have closed their airspace to Russian carriers in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

Britain barred Aeroflot flights on Thursday.

No flights from Russia appeared Sunday to be arriving at major US airports in Washington, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Delta Airlines on Friday suspended a code-sharing arrangement with Aeroflot.

But the US Transportation Department has yet to announce a decision on banning Russian flights.

Sporting Sanctions Can Land Significant Blow on Putin, Say Experts

Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, the scandal-plagued 2014 Winter Olympics and Gazprom’s sponsorship of the Champions League were powerful tools for the country’s global image and gained Vladimir Putin prestige amongst the Russian population.

However, the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine has resulted in destroying the warm global afterglow and experts believe it could cost him dearly internally.

Saint Petersburg has already been stripped of hosting this year’s Champions League final with Gazprom’s reported 40-million-euro ($45 million) a year sponsorship deal with UEFA also in doubt. 

The Russian Formula One Grand Prix has been cancelled and there are calls for the country’s football team to be expelled from the 2022 World Cup play-offs. 

“Sport has always had a tremendous impact on society,” Michael Payne, former head of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP. 

“The South African sports boycott over apartheid probably had as much or greater impact than economic sanctions, over forcing regime policy change.”

For Hugh Robertson, Chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), a blanket sports ban could affect Putin’s standing domestically.  

“Sport is disproportionately important to absolutist regimes,” he told AFP. 

“The potential inability to compete would hit Russia hard.”

Payne, who in nearly two decades at the IOC was widely credited with transforming its brand and finances through sponsorship, said Putin risked his standing with his own people. 

“Putin may not care what the rest of the world thinks of him, but he has to care what the Russian people think of him,” said the Irishman.

“Lose their support and it is game over -– and the actions of the sports community has the potential to be a very important influencer towards the Russian people.”

‘A greater good’ 

Prominent Russian sports stars have not been shy in voicing their disquiet over Putin’s invasion.

Andrey Rublev, who won the Dubai ATP title on Saturday, veteran Russian football international Fedor Smolov, United States-based ice hockey great Alex Ovechkin and cyclist Pavel Sivakov, who rides for the Ineos team have all expressed a desire for peace. 

“Russian athletes speaking out to their national fan base, will only serve to further prompt the local population to question the actions of their leadership, and undermine the local national support for the war,” said Payne. 

However, another former IOC marketing executive Terrence Burns, who since leaving the organization has played a key role in five successful Olympic bid city campaigns, has doubts about their impact.

“You are making the assumption that Russian people actually see, read, and hear ‘real news’,” he told AFP. 

“I do not believe that is the case. The Government will portray Russia as a victim of a great global conspiracy led by the USA and the West. 

“It is an old Russian trope they have used quite effectively since the Soviet days.”

Burns says sadly the athletes must also be punished for their government’s aggression.

“I believe that Russia must pay the price for what it has done,” he said.

“Sadly, that has to include her athletes as well. 

“Many people, like me, believed that by helping them host the Olympics and World Cup could somehow open and liberalize the society, creating new paths of progress for Russia’s young people. Again, we were wrong.”

Robertson too says allowing Russians to compete when Ukrainians are unable to due to the conflict is “morally inconceivable.” 

Payne says individual sports have to look at a bigger moral picture than their own potential losses over cutting Russian sponsorship contracts. 

“The sports world risks losing far more by not reacting, than the loss of one or two Russian sponsors.” 

Former British lawmaker Robertson, who as Minister for Sport and the Olympics delivered the highly successful 2012 London Games, agrees. 

“The sporting world may have to wean itself off Russian money,” said the 59-year-old.

“Over the past few days, it has become apparent that political, economic and trade sanctions will hurt the West as well as Russia, but this is a price that we will have to pay to achieve a greater good.”

For Robertson sport could not stand idly by in response to Russia’s invasion. 

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact sport but the consequences of inaction, or prevarication, will be far more serious.” 

Glitz Returns on Screen Actors Guild Awards Red Carpet

The 28th Screen Actors Guild Awards will kick off with a “Hamilton” reunion, feature a lifetime achievement award for Helen Mirren and, maybe, supply a preview of the upcoming Academy Awards.

The SAG Awards, taking place at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California, begin at 8 p.m. EST Sunday and air on both TNT and TBS. (The show will also be available to stream Monday on HBO Max.) After the January Golden Globes were a non-event, the Screen Actors Guild Awards are Hollywood’s first major, televised, in-person award show — complete with a red carpet and teary-eyed speeches — this year.

While the Academy Awards aren’t mandating vaccination for presenters (just attendees), it’s required for the SAG Awards, which are voted on by the Hollywood actors’ guild SAG-AFTRA. One actor in the cast of the Paramount series “Yellowstone,” Forrie J. Smith, has said he wouldn’t attend because he isn’t vaccinated. 

The evening’s first awards, announced before the show began, honored a pair of blockbusters on both the big and small screens. Netflix’s “Squid Game” and the James Bond film “No Time to Die” each won for best stunt ensembles.  

“Hamilton” trio Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs were set to open the ceremony. Kate Winslet is presenting the actors’ lifetime achievement award to Mirren, a five-time SAG Award winner.  

A starry group of nominees  — including Will Smith, Lady Gaga, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman and Ben Affleck — will make sure the SAG Award don’t lack for glamour.  

Five films are nominated for the SAG Awards’ top honor, best ensemble: Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” Sian Heder’s coming-of-age drama “CODA,” Adam McKay’s apocalypse comedy “Don’t Look Up,” Ridley Scott’s high-camp “House of Gucci” and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s family tennis drama “King Richard.”  

The leading Oscar nominee, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” failed to land a best ensemble nominations but three of its actors — Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee — are up for individual awards.  

Winning best ensemble doesn’t automatically make a movie the Oscar favorite, but actors hold the largest sway because they constitute the largest percentage of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Last year, the actors chose Aaron Sorkin’s 1960s courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” while best picture at the Oscars went to “Nomadland.” The year before, SAG’s pick of “Parasite” presaged the Oscar winner.  

In the television categories, Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” comes in with a leading five nominations, closely trailed by HBO’s “Succession,” Apple’s “The Morning Show” and “Squid Game” — all of which are up for four awards.

Belarus Votes to Give Up Non-nuclear Status

Belarusians voted Monday to allow the country to host nuclear weapons and Russian forces permanently, results showed, part of a package of constitutional reforms that also extended the rule of leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The referendum was held Sunday as the ex-Soviet country’s neighbor Ukraine is under attack from Russian troops and delegations from Moscow and Kyiv are expected to meet for talks on the Belarusian border.

Central Election Commission head Igor Karpenko said 65.16% of referendum participants voted in favor of the amendments and 10.07% voted against, Russian news agencies reported.

According to Karpenko, voter turnout stood at 78.63%. 

To come into force, the amendments need to receive at least 50% of the vote with a turnout of over half the electorate.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, promised the referendum in the wake of historic protests against his disputed re-election in 2020.

By amending the constitution Lukashenko, 67, follows in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2020 oversaw a vote on constitutional changes that made it possible for him to remain in power until 2036.

The constitutional changes also grant immunity to former leaders for crimes committed during their term in office.

Russia is a key ally of Belarus and last week Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine from the north. 

Belarus inherited a number of Soviet nuclear warheads following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, which it then transferred to Russia.

Lukashenko first floated possible changes after a presidential vote in August 2020 sparked unprecedented demonstrations that were met with a brutal crackdown.

He claimed a sixth term in the vote and imprisoned leading opposition figures, while his main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to seek refuge in neighboring Lithuania.

The amendments would reinstate presidential term limits — previously ditched by Lukashenko — to two five-year terms, but they would only apply to the next elected president.

Were Lukashenko to put himself forward as a candidate for re-election in 2025, he could remain in power for an additional 10 years.

Tikhanovskaya’s office in Lithuania has hit out at the vote, saying that a sweeping crackdown on any dissenting voices since the 2020 election made any real discussion of the proposals impossible.

Euro Backlash as FIFA Refuses to Expel Russia From Football

FIFA drew a swift backlash from European nations for not immediately expelling Russia from World Cup qualifying Sunday and only ordering the country to play without its flag and anthem at neutral venues under the name of its federation — the Football Union of Russia.

Protesting against FIFA’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland said it would still refuse to play the country in a World Cup playoff semifinal, which is scheduled for March 24.

“Today’s FIFA decision is totally unacceptable,” Polish football federation president Cezary Kulesza tweeted. “We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is.”

 

The unanimous ruling by the FIFA Bureau, featuring the six regional football confederation presidents, said the Russian flag and anthem can’t be associated with the team playing as “Football Union of Russia (RFU).”

“FIFA will continue its ongoing dialogue with the IOC, UEFA and other sport organizations to determine any additional measures or sanctions,” FIFA said in a statement, “including a potential exclusion from competitions, that shall be applied in the near future should the situation not be improving rapidly.”

The decision adopts the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling before the invasion of Ukraine, punishing Russia’s cover-up of the investigation into state-sponsored doping. It meant the Russians had to compete at the last two Olympics as the ROC team. FIFA had stalled implementing the ban on Russia competing under the country’s name until a potential qualification for the World Cup.

The winner of the Russia-Poland playoff is due to host Sweden or the Czech Republic on March 29 to decide who advances to the Nov. 21-Dec. 18 World Cup in Qatar.

Swedish federation president Karl-Erik Nilsson, the senior UEFA vice president, told the website Fotbollskanalen that he was not satisfied with the FIFA decision with a “sharper stance” expected. The Czechs said the FIFA compromise did not change their decision not to play Russia.

FIFA said it had engaged with the three associations and would remain in “close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together.”

Separately, the English Football Association announced that its national teams would refuse to play Russia for the “foreseeable future.” Russia has qualified for the Women’s European Championship which is being hosted by England in June.

The English FA said the decision was taken “out of solidarity with the Ukraine and to wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities being committed by the Russian leadership.”

The RFU’s president is Aleksandr Dyukov, who is chief executive of a subsidiary of state-owned energy giant Gazprom and also sits on the UEFA executive committee.

In France, the football federation president Noël Le Graët told the Le Parisien daily Sunday that he was leaning toward excluding Russia from the World Cup.

“The world of sport, and in particular football, cannot remain neutral,” said Le Graët, who sits on the ruling FIFA Council and has recently been a close ally of the governing body’s president, Gianni Infantino.

A strict reading of FIFA’s World Cup regulations would even make the Polish, Swedish and Czech federations liable to disciplinary action and having to pay fines and compensation if they wouldn’t play Russia.

In 1992, however, FIFA and UEFA removed Yugoslavia from its competitions following United Nations sanctions imposed when war broke out in the Balkans.  

The FIFA Bureau, which is chaired by Infantino, includes UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine entered a fourth day on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin temporarily lost his most senior official position in world sports. The International Judo Federation cited “the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine” for suspending Putin’s honorary president status.

The Russian president is a keen judoka and attended the sport at the 2012 London Olympics.

There was an abrupt resignation Sunday from the Russian who is president of the European Judo Union, with Sergey Soloveychik referencing the “heartache that we see the people in brotherly countries die” but backing his country.

“No one doubts that my heart belongs to judo,” he said. “But it is equally true that it belongs to my homeland, Russia. We, judoka, must always be loyal to our principles.”

In Putin’s other favorite sport, ice hockey, Latvian club Dinamo Riga withdrew Sunday from the Russian-owned and run Kontinental Hockey League citing the “military and humanitarian crisis.”

EU Closes its Airspace to Russian Planes 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says the European Union will close its airspace to Russian airlines and private jets due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The ban was decided on Sunday by the bloc’s foreign ministers. The decision is among several actions announced by the foreign ministers after their meeting in Brussels.

“We are shutting down the EU airspace for Russians. We are proposing a prohibition on all Russian-owned, Russian registered, or Russian-controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off, or overfly the territory of the EU,” von der Leyen told a news conference.

 

Many European countries had already announced they would close their airspace to Russian planes.

Finland and Belgium were among the most recent to take the step, saying earlier they would join other European countries in ramping up sanctions against Moscow, officials said.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, “is preparing to close its airspace to Russian air traffic,” Transport Minister Timo Harakka said on Twitter on February 26.

He did not state when the measure would take effect.

Belgian Prime Minster Alexander De Croo said on February 27 that the country “has decided to close its airspace to all Russian airlines.”

De Croo said on Twitter that “our European skies are open skies. They’re open for those who connect people, not for those who seek to brutally aggress.”

Several other countries, including Germany, France, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Britain, Romania, and Poland, had already closed their airspace to Russian flights, forcing westbound Russian planes to make enormous diversions.

 

“France is shutting its airspace to all Russian aircraft and airlines from this evening on,” French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said on Twitter.

Air France-KLM said it is suspending flights to and from Russia as well as the overflight of Russian airspace until further notice as of February 27.

Canada also said on February 27 it had shut its airspace to Russian aircraft effective immediately, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said on Twitter.

 

Germany’s Transport Ministry said it would close its airspace to Russian planes and airlines for three months from February 27, with the exception of humanitarian aid flights.

Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are also closing their airspace to Russian airliners.

Moscow, for its part, has also banned planes from those countries from flying over its territory.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters.

Russians Hold Anti-War Rallies Amid Ominous Threats by Putin 

From Moscow to Siberia, Russian anti-war activists took to the streets again Sunday to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the arrests of hundreds of protesters each day by police.

Demonstrators held pickets and marched in city centers, chanting “No to war!” as President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear deterrent to be put on high alert, upping the ante in the Kremlin’s standoff with the West and stoking fears of a nuclear war.

“I have two sons and I don’t want to give them to that bloody monster. War is a tragedy for all of us,” 48-year-old Dmitry Maltsev, who joined the rally in St. Petersburg, told The Associated Press.

Protests against the invasion started Thursday in Russia and have continued daily ever since, even as Russian police have moved swiftly to crack down on the rallies and detain protesters. The Kremlin has sought to downplay the protests, insisting that a much broader share of Russians support the assault on Ukraine.

In St. Petersburg, where several hundred gathered in the city center, police in full riot gear were grabbing one protester after another and dragging some into police vans, even though the demonstration was peaceful. Footage from Moscow showed police throwing several female protesters on the ground before dragging them away.

According to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests, by Sunday evening police detained at least 1,474 Russians in 45 cities over anti-war demonstrations that day.

Four days into the the fighting that has killed scores, Putin raised the stakes dramatically on Sunday, ordering the military Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, citing Western countries “taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere” and “top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country.”

The day before, the U.S. and its European allies have warned that the coming round of sanctions could include freezing hard currency reserves of Russia’s Central Bank and cutting Russia off SWIFT international payment system. The unprecedented move could quickly plunge the Russian economy into chaos.

Ordinary Russians fear that stiff sanctions will deliver a crippling blow to the country’s economy. Since Thursday, Russians have been flocking to banks and ATMs to withdraw cash, creating long lines and reporting on social media about ATM machines running out of bills.

According to Russia’s Central Bank, on Thursday alone Russians withdrew 111 billion rubles (about $1.3 billion) in cash.

The anti-war protests on Sunday appeared smaller and more scattered than the ones that took place on the first day of Russia’s attack in Ukraine, when thousands of people rallied in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but their true scale was hard to assess and they seemed to pick up speed as the day went on.

“It is a crime both against Ukraine and Russia. I think it is killing both Ukraine and Russia. I am outraged, I haven’t slept for three nights, and I think we must now declare very loudly that we don’t want to be killed and don’t want Ukraine to be killed,” said Olga Mikheeva, who protested in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.

Із 28 лютого у банкоматах України знову буде готівка – комітет ВР з питань фінансів

Із 28 лютого в банкоматах в банкоматах України знову буде готівка. Про це, з посиланням на слова голови НБУ, повідомляє членкиня фракції «Батьківщина», представниця парламентського комітету з питань фінансів, податкової та митної політики Альона Шкрум.

«Голова НБУ прямо зараз говорить з нами на засіданні податкового та фінансового комітету. НБУ виходить зараз зі стратегічними запасами готівки – більшість банків зможуть її безпечно доставити в банкомати. Отже, в банкоматах затвра будуть кошти», – повідомила Шкрум.

Цитуючи голову НБУ, вона також зазначає, що зараз ніхто не має права відмовляти українцям у розрахунку картками. У разі ж відмови кожен може звернутись на електронну пошту Нацбанку.

«Фінансова система працює стабільно, не дивлячись на війну в країні. За що ми дуже дякуємо НБУ і всім його працівникам», – підсумовує Шкрум.

Голова Національного банку України Кирило Шевченко, у свою чергу, зазначив у фейсбуці, що банківська система продовжує забезпечувати всі необхідні рішення з використання POS-терміналів для здійснення оплат.

«Не приймати платіжні картки зараз – це щонайменше непатріотичний крок, якому немає жодного виправдання. Особливо сьогодні, коли Україна демонструє світові безпрецедентний приклад героїзму, мужності і єдності перед обличчям зла», – повідомив Шевченко.

В Україні введено воєнний стан після нового вторгнення Росії. О 5-й ранку 24 лютого президент Росії Володимир Путін заявив про початок спецоперації на Донбасі після звернення про військову допомогу з боку угруповань «ДНР»/«ЛНР», які він перед тим «визнав».

Президент Володимир Зеленський підписав указ про загальну мобілізацію. Країни Заходу почали застосовувати нові санкції проти Росії через її напад на Україну.

Попри пряме вторгнення, Кремль заперечує наміри окупації України. У Міністерстві оборони Росії також заперечують дані української сторони про збиті російські літаки, розбомблену бронетехніку, загибель російських військових і заявляють, що не обстрілюють українські міста.

Кремль повторив попередню заяву Путіна про те, що метою вторгнення є «демілітаризація і денацифікація України».

Russian Invasion of Ukraine Tops UN Human Rights Council Agenda 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be hotly debated during the five-week U.N. Human Rights Council session that begins Monday. 

Heads of state and other dignitaries representing more than 140 countries will address the U.N. Human Rights Council over the next three days. Quite unusually, this high-level segment will begin with a consideration of a request from Ukraine to hold an urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression.”

The council’s president, Argentinian Ambassador Federico Villegas, told journalists in Geneva that an urgent debate can take place as soon as the 47-member body decides to do so.

“And has to make a decision according to the rules of procedure, which is a consensus or a vote with a majority of positive votes over negative votes. … We had the most recent, I am sure you are very much aware in 2020, Belarus was an urgent debate, and the killing of George Floyd was also an urgent debate,” he said.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said he hoped the council would immediately address the issue if war broke out, noting the council has the capacity to help prevent war crimes.

“With respect to Ukraine, I do not see it is the council’s role to try to stop a war. That is the Security Council. But if war breaks out the council is really the leading venue to address how the war is fought and… if there are large-scale war crimes then it is the council’s role to spotlight the war crimes with the aim of deterring them,” he said.

During the session, the council will consider more than 100 reports dealing with issues such as torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention. The human rights records of some 50 countries in all regions will be examined. They include Myanmar, North Korea, Syria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Human rights organizations are pressuring U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet to present a long-awaited report on China’s incarceration of more than a million Uyghurs in internment camps in Xinjiang province.

The United States, France, and Lithuania have denounced Beijing’s wide-scale repression of Uyghurs as a genocide. China vigorously denies these accusations.

Two of Russia’s Billionaires Call for Peace in Ukraine 

Two Russian billionaires, Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, called for an end to the conflict triggered by President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, with Fridman calling it a tragedy for both countries’ people.

Billionaire Fridman, who was born in western Ukraine, told staff in a letter that the conflict was driving a wedge between the two eastern Slav peoples of Russia and Ukraine who have been brothers for centuries.

“I was born in Western Ukraine and lived there until I was 17. My parents are Ukrainian citizens and live in Lviv, my favorite city,” Fridman wrote in the letter, excerpts of which Reuters saw.

“But I have also spent much of my life as a citizen of Russia, building and growing businesses. I am deeply attached to the Ukrainian and Russian peoples and see the current conflict as a tragedy for them both.”

Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, used a post on Telegram to called for peace talks to begin “as fast as possible.”

“Peace is very important,” said Deripaska, who is the founder of Russian aluminum giant Rusal 0486.HKRUAL.MM, in which he still owns a stake via his shares in its parent company En+ Group.

On Feb. 21, Deripaska said there would not be a war.

Washington imposed sanctions on Deripaska and other influential Russians because of their ties to Putin after alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, which Moscow denies.

Russia’s so-called oligarchs, who once exercised significant influence over President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, are facing economic chaos after the West imposed severe sanctions on Russia over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin, after consulting his security council of senior officials, said he ordered the special military operation to protect people, including Russian citizens, from “genocide” – an accusation the West calls baseless propaganda.

The Ukrainian president’s office said negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow would be held at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

“This crisis will cost lives and damage two nations who have been brothers for hundreds of years,” Fridman said.

“While a solution seems frighteningly far off, I can only join those whose fervent desire is for the bloodshed to end. I’m sure my partners share my view.”

One of Fridman’s long-term partners, Pyotr Aven, attended a meeting at the Kremlin with Putin and 36 other major Russian businessmen last week, the Kremlin said.

Another Moscow billionaire told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the war was going to be a catastrophe.

“It is going to be catastrophic in all senses: for the economy, for relations with the rest of the world, for the political situation,” the billionaire said.

The billionaires who gathered for a meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on Thursday were silent, he said.

“Businessmen understand very well the consequences. But who is asking the opinion of business about this?”

Has China Turned its Back on ‘Best Friend’ Russia?

China refused to join its close friend, Russia, in vetoing a U.S.-backed resolution in the U.N. Security Council deploring Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

China abstained on the motion but also made statements that could be extremely disappointing to Moscow. Zhang Jun, China’s U.N. ambassador, called for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as it was being violated by Russia.

“Ukraine should become a bridge between the East and the West, not an outpost for confrontation between major powers,” Zhang said. However, he also called for understanding Russia’s fears about NATO attempts to expand and include Ukraine as a member.

China has been using this argument about sovereignty and territorial integrity in rejecting foreign comments and opinions about trouble spots such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It has also used this argument to oppose the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“Russian annexation of portions of Ukraine, or invasion and seizure of Kiev, violate China’s position that sovereignty is sacrosanct,” John Culver, a former U.S. intelligence officer said on Twitter.

Cold feet

China’s decision to take a neutral stance on the invasion of Ukraine raises several questions. Did Beijing develop cold feet at the last moment, or did Russia go much further in its military aggression in Ukraine than China had expected?

“The unity and strong resolve of Western countries to isolate Russia is a matter of surprise. China needs to feel the pebbles and carefully walk through the stream,” a senior journalist with state-run Chinese media said while requesting not to be named.

Just a few days ago, Chinese experts had said there was no way Europe would back U.S. proposals against Russia because it was heavily dependent on Russian gas.

Europe’s ability to shun Russia “depends on the extent to which the US is able to replace Russia’s natural gas exports,” Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the state-owned Global Times.

Now that Europe has overcome any hesitation and moved to stop further aggression from Russia, Beijing will be concerned about the more stringent financial sanctions imposed on Moscow, such as the ban on the international operations of the Russian central bank and the cutting Russia out of the SWIFT international fund transfer system.

As the world’s biggest trader, China has strong reasons to worry about being bracketed with Russia, particularly because many Chinese banks have close dealings with Russian financial companies. The stakes are also high for Chinese companies, as 254 of them are listed on U.S. stock exchanges.

For years, China has been trying to take advantage of differences between Washington and Europe. For instance, it has pushed for wider investment opportunities in Europe after the U.S. made it difficult for Chinese companies to buy corporate assets in areas related to security and high technology.

As the biggest importer of crude oil, it is China that will pay a heavy price due to the rise in oil prices, which have touched $100 per barrel. Russia is the second-largest source of oil for China, after Saudi Arabia.

China could face serious difficulties in buying Russian crude after Russia’s ouster from the international payments system, although Russia and China have been working on a payments process that does not require access to SWIFT for bilateral trade.

Domestic opinion

Within China, almost no one would accept the idea that Chinese authorities, known for taking a long-term view of situations, could have miscalculated or developed cold feet.

But there are signs that Putin did not reveal the full extent of his planned actions to Xi.

The New York Times reported that American intelligence had shared information about Russian preparedness to invade Ukraine with Chinese officials but the latter had rejected the possibility. U.S. officials calculated that China had a lot to lose in a Russian war on Ukraine and hoped Beijing might use its influence on Moscow to stop a direct invasion.

Fears of Indiscriminate Russian Shelling Mount as Ukraine Battles On

Fears are mounting that Russian forces will turn more to targeting critical civilian infrastructure and mount indiscriminate shelling as the defenders of Kyiv maintain their resistance and hold ground despite redoubled Kremlin efforts to subjugate Ukraine’s capital.

Some critical civilian infrastructure has already been hit and the Ukrainian military said it intercepted a missile heading for a nearby dam, which if breached could have caused major flooding of low-lying districts near the Dnieper River.

Russian forces also targeted a radioactive waste disposal site in Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities say.

“I think today we’ve seen a shift in Russian targeting towards critical civilian infrastructure, greater use of MLRS [multiple rocket launchers], and artillery in suburban areas,” tweeted Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at CNA, an American defense research organization.

“Unfortunately, my concern that this was going to get a lot more ugly and affect civilians is starting to materialize,” he added.

In the dam incident, the Ukrainian military said it managed to shoot down a Russian missile heading toward the Kyiv Reservoir dam Saturday.

“If the dam is destroyed, the flood will lead to catastrophic casualties and damage, including flooding of residential areas in Kyiv and the suburbs,” the Infrastructure Ministry said on Telegram.

Water experts say if the dam north of the city is breached, it could trigger a cascade effect, causing other key dams to fail. There are even concerns that a nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhya, about 550 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, could be affected.

Russian forces Saturday targeted an oil depot southwest of the city at Vasylkiv as Ukrainian forces repulsed a Russian assault on the capital.

Local authorities say Ukrainian forces are battling saboteurs and Russian special operations forces units who have infiltrated the capital. The Ukrainian government has reported 198 civilian deaths, including children, since the Russia’s invasion, but they caution the numbers could be higher. Ukrainian authorities say at least 1,200 civilians have been injured.

Six people, including a 7-year-old girl, were killed in Russian shelling in Okhtyrka, in Sumy Oblast in northeastern Ukraine, Governor Dmitry Zhivitsky said Sunday. And in the south of the country the Russian military launched drones strikes in Odessa, according to Serhiy Bratchuk, head of the regional administration.

The Ukrainian military says it has inflicted heavy losses on Russia, saying its forces have managed to destroy 16 warplanes, 18 helicopters, 102 tanks, 504 armored vehicles and a Buk-1 missile system. They estimate they have killed 3,000 Russian soldiers and captured 200. VOA is unable to vouch for the accuracy of the claims.

Sunday morning the Ukrainians blew up a bridge on the northwest of Kyiv to try to hinder Russian forces.

Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told reporters that while a Russian delegation had arrived in Gomel in Belarus for peace talks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rejected a Russian offer of talks in Belarus on Sunday. Podolyak said Zelenskyy is open to negotiations elsewhere — the Ukrainians have suggested Warsaw, which is being refused by the Russians.

Zelenskyy described the fighting overnight in Kyiv and across the country as “brutal” in a statement Sunday. He said Russian occupying forces are “attacking civilian areas” where there is no military infrastructure. He said Russia is now “attacking everything,” including ambulances.

As worries mounted in Kyiv of a shift in Russian targeting from mainly military infrastructure, locals Sunday reported fierce street fighting in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, where overnight shelling of residential districts preceded the entry of Russian ground forces.

Despite the Russian breach of Kharkiv, local Ukrainian commanders say they will continue to resist.

“There has been a breakthrough in light equipment including in the central part of the city,” Oleg Sinegubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional administration, announced, urging local residents to stay in shelters. He said Russian troops were still being blocked amid heavy fighting.

As in Kharkiv and Kyiv, so too elsewhere in the country defiance remains high — with resistance symbolized for many by a video posted on social media showing a Ukrainian civilian in Bakhmach in northern Ukraine attempting to stop a Russian tank by pushing against it.

In the video, the man first climbs on to the tank before jumping down and attempting to push it back, after that he kneels in front in a desperate bid to stop its advance. VOA cannot confirm the authenticity of the video, nonetheless it is one of many posted that Ukrainians point to as inspirational.

Ukrainian forces have notched up some significant successes. Zelenskyy aides confirmed that a convoy of Chechen special operations forces was intercepted near Hostomel and wiped out. Ukrainian forces have downed a cruise missile fired by a Russian Tu-22 strategic bomber from the territory of Belarus, Valery Zaluzhny, chief commander of the armed forces, said Sunday.

For civilians in cities and towns under siege — and even in towns unaffected directly by the fighting — getting basic goods and staples is becoming increasingly difficult. Many stores have closed, and supplies are difficult for owners to maintain. Village stores seem better supplied, being able to stock up with local produce, as witnessed by this VOA correspondent.

Seventy-two hours since the Russian invasion, Western experts estimate 80% of the country is still in Ukrainian hands, with around half of the forces Russian leader Vladimir Putin deployed along Ukraine’s borders now in action.

Franz-Stefan Gady, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London, says the Russians are having to throw in more second-echelon units because “Ukrainian forces by and large are fighting orderly delaying actions; morale remains very high; air-defenses still operational; air force remains active.”

He says Ukraine’s mechanized forces are managing to mount counterattacks and that a race is on for Ukrainian forces to beat an orderly retreat from the East, where the bulk of Ukrainian forces have been deployed, to cross the Dnieper River and establish fresh defensive positions where possible. The Russian tactic seems to be to avoid losing contact with major Ukrainian units and to encircle major cities, as they are trying to do with Kyiv, and probe for weaknesses.

He, too, worries about the likelihood of mounting civilian casualties.

“Expect very heavy fighting and a noticeable increase in Russian ground-based mass fires to break Ukrainian resistance. This will be absolutely devastating for the civilian population, if caught in crossfires,” he tweeted.

The U.N. Refugee Agency said Sunday that more than 200,000 Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries. Tens of thousands more are waiting on Poland’s borders to enter, with many more trying to make it across the country, as witnessed by this VOA correspondent during a journey from Kyiv to Lviv that took two days.

As blasts and explosions echoed around Kyiv, Zelenskyy, wearing olive green military-style clothing, assured residents of the capital that he remains with them.

“I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth,” he said. “Our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children and we will protect all of this,” he added.

The country’s 44-year-old leader also said the country’s steadfast resistance has “derailed” a Russian plan to establish a puppet state in Ukraine. 

With Cinemas Closed, Ghana’s Hand-Painted Movie Posters Find Homes Abroad 

With a flick of his brush, Ghanaian painter Daniel Anum Jasper armed actor Paul Newman with a pair of revolvers. Unfinished paintings of a bell-bottomed John Travolta and nunchuck-spinning Bruce Lee adorned the walls of his crammed Accra studio.

Jasper, a veteran movie poster designer, was finishing up one of the 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” commissioned by a foreign collector who had reached out over Instagram.

From the late 1970s to the 1990s, Ghana developed a tradition of advertising films with vibrant hand-painted posters. Local cinemas were flourishing in the West African country, and artists competed over who could entice the largest audience with their often gory, imaginative and eye-popping displays.

Jasper was a pioneer of the tradition and has been painting movie posters on repurposed flour sacks for the last 30 years. But the market for his work, which once had people clamoring for theater seats, has changed.

“People are no longer interested in going out to watch a movie when it can be watched from the comfort of their phones,” Jasper said.

“But there is a growing interest in owning these hand-painted posters internationally,” he added. “Now they hang them in private rooms or show them in exhibitions.”

With the rise of the internet, Ghana’s independent cinemas fell into obscurity. But Jasper’s work has gained appeal abroad, including in the United States, where the posters are valued as unique representations of a specific period in African art.

Western action flicks were mainstays of the tradition, as were Bollywood films and Chinese pictures. Many of the posters include paranormal elements and gratuitous violence even if the films had none, and physical features are wildly exaggerated.

Joseph Oduro-Frimpong, a professor in pop culture anthropology at Ghana’s Ashesi University, has several of Jasper’s paintings. He has collected the posters for years and has been known to buy up a closing video store’s entire supply.

He plans to display his posters at the Centre for African Popular Culture opening at the university later this year, and said he hopes people appreciate their historical significance.

“Of course there is an esthetic value to the posters, how crazy it is and all of that, but we use them to have a conversation with students,” he said.

“We tell them not to think about what they’re seeing now… [but] to think of these art forms as symbols of history that can tell their own stories.”

UN Security Council Plans Vote to Call General Assembly Meeting on Ukraine

The United Nations Security Council is due to vote Sunday to call for a rare emergency special session of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which would be held on Monday, diplomats said.

The vote by the 15-member council is procedural so none of the five permanent council members – Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States – can wield their vetoes. The move needs nine votes in favor and is likely to pass, diplomats said.

Only 10 such emergency special sessions of the General Assembly have been convened since 1950. The request for a session on Ukraine comes after Russia vetoed on Friday a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have deplored Moscow’s invasion. China, India and UAE abstained, while the remaining 11 members voted in favor.

The General Assembly is expected to vote on a similar resolution following several days of statements by countries in the emergency special session, diplomats said. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding but carry political weight.

The United States and allies are seeking as much support as possible to show Russia is internationally isolated.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in March 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. The resolution, which declared invalid a referendum on the status of Crimea, received 100 yes votes and 11 against. Two dozen countries didn’t vote and 58 abstained.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday, telling him the world body plans to “enhance humanitarian assistance to the people of Ukraine,” a U.N. spokesperson said.

“He informed the President that the United Nations would launch on Tuesday an appeal to fund our humanitarian operations in Ukraine,” the U.N. spokesperson said in a statement.

U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said Friday that more than $1 billion will be needed for aid operations in Ukraine over the next three months as hundreds of thousands of people are on the move after Russia invaded its neighbor.