Ukraine Court Sentences 2 Russian Soldiers for Shelling Civilians

A Ukrainian court sentenced two Russian soldiers to 11½-year prison terms on Tuesday after they had pleaded guilty last week to indiscriminately shelling civilian targets in the Kharkiv region, from across the border in Russia. 

Alexander Bobikin and Alexander Ivanov heard the verdict as they stood in a reinforced glass box at the Kotelva district court in northeastern Ukraine.

“The guilt of Bobikin and Ivanov has been proven in full,” Judge Evhen Bolybok said, standing in front of a Ukrainian flag.

Prosecutors had asked for 12-year terms for the Russian soldiers in the second war crimes case Ukrainian officials have brought. Defense lawyers said the sentences should be eight years because the pair had pleaded guilty, expressed remorse and contended that they were following orders when they fired Grad missiles at targets from Russia’s Belgorod area. 

After they were sentenced, the two were asked whether they felt their sentences were fair and both said yes. Guards armed with Kalashnikov rifles then handcuffed the two and led them out of the courtroom. 

After the initial shelling from inside Russia, Bobikin and Ivanov, described as an artillery driver and a gunner, were captured after crossing the border and continuing the shelling.  

Last week, a Russian soldier was handed a life sentence for killing an unarmed civilian. 

Ukraine has accused Russia of committing thousands of war crimes during the war over the past three months, although Moscow denies it is targeting civilians.  

 

Some material in this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

In Commonwealth, Queen’s Jubilee Draws Protests, Apathy

After seven decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II is widely viewed in the U.K. as a rock in turbulent times. But in Britain’s former colonies, many see her as an anchor to an imperial past whose damage still lingers.

So while the U.K. is celebrating the queen’s Platinum Jubilee — 70 years on the throne — with pageantry and parties, some in the Commonwealth are using the occasion to push for a formal break with the monarchy and the colonial history it represents.

“When I think about the queen, I think about a sweet old lady,” said Jamaican academic Rosalea Hamilton, who campaigns for her country to become a republic. “It’s not about her. It’s about her family’s wealth, built on the backs of our ancestors. We’re grappling with the legacies of a past that has been very painful.”

The empire that Elizabeth was born into is long gone, but she still reigns far beyond Britain’s shores. She is head of state in 14 other nations, including Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Bahamas. Until recently it was 15 — Barbados cut ties with the monarchy in November, and several other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, say they plan to follow suit.

Britain’s jubilee celebrations, which climax over a four-day holiday weekend starting Thursday, aim to recognize the diversity of the U.K. and the Commonwealth. A huge jubilee pageant through central London on Sunday will feature Caribbean Carnival performers and Bollywood dancers.

But Britain’s image of itself as a welcoming and diverse society has been battered by the revelation that hundreds, and maybe thousands, of people from the Caribbean who had lived legally in the U.K. for decades were denied housing, jobs or medical treatment — and in some cases deported — because they didn’t have the paperwork to prove their status.

The British government has apologized and agreed to pay compensation, but the Windrush scandal has caused deep anger, both in the U.K. and in the Caribbean.

A jubilee-year trip to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in March by the queen’s grandson Prince William and his wife Kate, which was intended to strengthen ties, appears to have had the opposite effect. Images of the couple shaking hands with children through a chain-link fence and riding in an open-topped Land Rover in a military parade stirred echoes of colonialism for many.

Cynthia Barrow-Giles, professor of political science at the University of the West Indies, said the British “seem to be very blind to the visceral sort of reactions” that royal visits elicit in the Caribbean.

Protesters in Jamaica demanded Britain pay reparations for slavery, and Prime Minister Andrew Holness politely told William that the country was “moving on,” a signal that it planned to become a republic. The next month, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the queen’s son Prince Edward that his country, too, would one day remove the queen as head of state.

William acknowledged the strength of feeling and said the future “is for the people to decide upon.”

“We support with pride and respect your decisions about your future,” he said in the Bahamas. “Relationships evolve. Friendship endures.”

When then Princess Elizabeth became queen on the death of her father King George VI 1952, she was in Kenya. The East African country became independent in 1963 after years of violent struggle between a liberation movement and colonial troops. In 2013, the British government apologized for the torture of thousands of Kenyans during the 1950s “Mau Mau” uprising and paid millions in an out-of-court settlement.

Memories of the empire are still raw for many Kenyans.

“From the start, her reign would be indelibly stained by the brutality of the empire she presided over and that accompanied its demise,” said Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan cartoonist, writer and commentator.

“To this day, she has never publicly admitted, let alone apologized, for the oppression, torture, dehumanization and dispossession visited upon people in the colony of Kenya before and after she acceded to the throne.”

U.K. officials hope countries that become republics will remain in the Commonwealth, the 54-nation organization made up largely of former British colonies, which has the queen as its ceremonial head.

The queen’s strong personal commitment to the Commonwealth has played a big role in uniting a diverse group whose members range from vast India to tiny Tuvalu. But the organization, which aims to champion democracy, good governance and human rights, faces an uncertain future.

As Commonwealth heads of government prepare to meet in Kigali, Rwanda, this month for a summit delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, some question whether the organization can continue once the queen’s eldest son, Prince Charles, succeeds her.

“Many of the more uncomfortable histories of the British Empire and the British Commonwealth are sort of waiting in the wings for as soon as Elizabeth II is gone,” royal historian Ed Owens said. “So it’s a difficult legacy that she is handing over to the next generation.”

The crisis in the Commonwealth reflects Britain’s declining global clout.

Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth under its authoritarian late President Robert Mugabe, and is currently seeking readmission. But many in its capital of Harare have expressed indifference to the queen’s jubilee, as Britain’s once-strong influence wanes and countries such as China and Russia enjoy closer relations with the former British colony.

“She is becoming irrelevant here,” social activist Peter Nyapedwa said. “We know about [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] or [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, not the queen.”

Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said the queen has been the “invisible glue” holding the Commonwealth together.

But she says the organization has proven remarkably resilient and and shouldn’t be written off. The Commonwealth played a major role in galvanizing opposition to apartheid in the 1980s, and could do the same over climate change, which poses an existential threat to its low-lying island members.

“The Commonwealth has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself and contrive solutions at times of crisis, almost as if it’s jumping into a telephone box and coming out under different guise,” she said. “Whether it will do it now is an open question.”

Russia Sanctions Seen Loosening Moscow’s Grip on Central Asia

Russia’s influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia is expected to decline as its overstretched military struggles in Ukraine and its economy suffers shocks from the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, according to experts.

Russia has long enjoyed leverage over the region’s five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – because of their reliance on remittances from migrant laborers employed in Russia, says Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, head of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh.

World Bank data published in March laid out the importance of the remittances, which it said in some cases “were comparable to or even larger than the countries’ exports of goods and services.”

“In the past, Central Asian states were wary of Russia because they understood that (their economic relationship) changes if they offended Moscow,” Murtazashvili told VOA. But, she said, the balance has shifted because of the war in Ukraine and the five countries “now understand that Russia needs labor from Central Asia very badly.”

“These countries now understand that they have agency and leverage and are beginning to understand how they can use it,” she said. “Right now, we are seeing a stronger Central Asia that will have more freedom to pick and choose among great powers.”

Russia’s weakness opens the door for China to play a larger role in the region, but it also increases opportunities for other countries that wish to do business there, according to Murtazshvili.

On Tuesday, exactly three months after Russia launched its invasion, China pledged $37.5 million of “free financial assistance” to Uzbekistan “for the implementation of joint socially significant projects,” according to the Uzbek government.

The agreement was signed by Uzbekistan’s deputy minister of investment and foreign trade, Aziz Voitov, and the Chinese ambassador in Tashkent, Jiang Yan, according to a statement on the website of Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Investment and Foreign Trade.

One day earlier, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu led a U.S. delegation to the region on a five-day trip to the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

According to the State Department, the purpose of the trip is “to strengthen U.S. relations with the region and advance collaborative efforts to create a more connected, prosperous, and secure Central Asia.”

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Washington with Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the foreign minister of Kazakhstan.

In the meeting, according to the State Department, Blinken confirmed the U.S. “commitment to minimizing the impact on allies and partners, including Kazakhstan, from the sanctions imposed on Russia.”

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire,” said that while Russia’s influence is expected to decline it will remain an important player in the region.

Leaders of the Central Asian nations “have always had some concern and skepticism towards Russia and now it will be worse,” he told VOA. “The natural connections and public opinion mean it will be hard to entirely sever, but it is clear that the regional governments are not ecstatic about President [Vladimir] Putin’s actions” in Ukraine.

Early in the war, Putin called the heads of the Central Asian states to seek support for his planned occupation of Ukraine. But the five leaders responded cautiously, neither endorsing nor condemning the invasion.

China, meanwhile, has been expanding its footprint in the region for a while, Pantucci said. “But increasingly the region will find itself frustrated as — unlike Russia — China is not very interested in stepping in to try to fix things, but is single-mindedly focused on its own interests.”

Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also predicted Russia will remain influential in the region despite the problems created by the war.

“Russia understands what is going on here in Central Asia and it does it better than any other foreign actor in the region,” Umarov told VOA from Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, “So this is something that is really difficult to change.”

According to Umarov, the five Central Asian states have been seeking to diversify their ties with the rest of the world since they gained their independence from Moscow in the early 1990s.

“Russia’s actions toward Ukraine will add speed to the process of replacing Russia in those countries,” Umarov said. “Of course, China is the number one country that has the capacity to do that in many spheres, especially in terms of logistics because of geographic location and its economy, because of China’s economic muscle which other countries do not possess.”

But, according to Murtazashvili, China is not very popular in Central Asia. “People understand what has happened with the Uyghurs and are wary of getting too close to China,” she said.

Three of the five Central Asian countries border China’s western Xinjiang region, where Beijing is accused by the U.S. and other countries of a genocidal crackdown on its Uyghur minority. Beijing rejects the accusation as lies and says that China is fighting against the “forces of three evil,” namely separatism, extremism and terrorism in the region.

The majority-Turkic countries of Central Asia are culturally, religiously and ethnically close to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

After Oil Deal, EU Turns to Defense – and Ukraine Aid 

European Union leaders are wrapping up a two-day summit Tuesday with discussions on energy, defense, and food security — key issues with the war in Ukraine— after striking a groundbreaking, if watered-down deal on a Russian oil ban. Europe will also be sending nearly $10 billion in much-needed aid to Ukraine.

It’s now up to European Union ambassadors to hammer out the details of the latest and toughest EU sanctions package. In the short term, it would cut three-quarters of European oil imports from Russia — those arriving by sea — and 90% of all imports by year’s end, after Germany and Poland agreed to phase out their pipeline deliveries.

“This is an important step forward,” said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. “The remaining 10% on this one, we will soon return to the issue of this remaining 10 percent of pipeline oil.”

For now, the deal exempts Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, highly dependent on Russian energy. This latest sanctions package was held up for weeks by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban — widely seen as Putin’s closest ally in the EU.

EU leaders say the agreement does not amount to a skewed win for Orban.

“It’s a compromise. So, if I had to choose between a compromise or no sanctions at all, then I think it’s a fair compromise,”said Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.

Officials say Croatia is expected to replace some Russia’s oil to Hungary, but it will take time to both update Hungarian refineries and increase Croatian capacities.

The new sanctions also target other areas. It would cut off Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, from the SWIFT international payments system, and take aim at more Russian media and individuals.

The bloc is also sending millions of dollars in additional aid to Ukraine.

“We know that Ukraine needs financial support for being able to run the country. It means that they need micro financial assistance. Nine billion euros is confirmed by the European Council. And it’s also to start all the programs that will be needed for the rebuilding of the country,” said European Council President Charles Michel.

Among other areas of discussion Tuesday, EU leaders were looking at increasing their military cooperation. The bloc is one of the world’s biggest economic powers — but as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell notes, defense is another matter.

“What we have learned from the Ukrainian war is that it’s not enough. the rule of law, it’s not enough to be a good civil power, we need to be also a military power,” he said.

Even with an EU oil embargo, experts caution Russia is profiting from the current high international prices for crude and may find other customers for its shipments.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: May 31

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All times EDT.

2:05 a.m.: A ship has left the Ukrainian port of Mariupol for the first time since Russia took the city and is headed east to Russia, Interfax quoted the Russian-backed separatist leader of the Ukrainian breakaway region of Donetsk as saying on Tuesday, according to Reuters. 

A spokesperson for the port said last week that the ship would be loading 2,700 tons of metal in Mariupol before traveling east to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Ukraine said the shipment of metal to Russia from Mariupol amounted to looting. 

1:00 a.m.: Japanese industry minister said on Tuesday that his country will not leave the Sakhalin 2 liquefied natural gas (LNG) project even if asked to leave, Reuters reported.

The land for the project is Russia’s but the plant is owned by the Japanese government and companies, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda told a parliamentary committee.

12:30 a.m.: Moscow backed separatist leader said Tuesday that Russian forces had not advanced as rapidly as they had hoped in the battle for Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city still in Ukraine’s hands, Reuters reported citing state-run TASS news agency.

As the Russian offensive continued across Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the European Union agreed to ban most imports of Russian oil, a move intended to blow a hole in the Kremlin’s war finances.

12:15 a.m.: Russian troops continue to battle Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country, according to The Associated Press.

12:01 a.m.: European Union leaders agreed late Monday to ban two-thirds of Russian oil imports as part of a compromise deal to increase pressure on Russia while accounting for the economic effects on some EU nations that are more reliant on Russian oil supplies. The embargo cuts off Russian oil delivered by sea, while exempting oil imported through pipelines.

Landlocked Hungary had threatened to oppose restrictions on oil imports, a move that would have scuttled the effort that requires consensus of all EU members. European Council President Charles Michel said he expects EU ambassadors to formally endorse the embargo, which is part of a larger sanctions package, on Wednesday.

Combined with pledges from countries such as Germany to phase out their Russian oil imports, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the agreement will “effectively cut around 90% of oil imports from Russia to the EU by the end of the year.”

 

Other parts of the sanction package include assets freezes and travel bans on individuals, and excluding Russia’s biggest banks, Sberbank, from the SWIFT global financial transfer system. The EU is also barring three Russian state-owned broadcasters from distributing content in EU countries. EU leaders also agreed to provide Ukraine with $9.7 billion in assistance for the country’s economy and reconstruction efforts.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

EU Agrees to Ban Majority of Russian Oil

European Union leaders agreed late Monday to ban two-thirds of Russian oil imports as part of a compromise deal to increase pressure on Russia while accounting for the economic effects on some EU nations that are more reliant on Russian oil supplies.

The embargo cuts off Russian oil delivered by sea, while exempting oil imported through pipelines.

Landlocked Hungary had threatened to oppose restrictions on oil imports, a move that would have scuttled the effort that requires consensus of all EU members. European Council President Charles Michel said he expects EU ambassadors to formally endorse the embargo, which is part of a larger sanctions package, on Wednesday.

Ukrainian leaders have long called for banning Russian oil imports in order to deny Russia income it can use to fuel its war effort. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated his appeal as he spoke to the EU Monday.

Combined with pledges from countries such as Germany to phase out their Russian oil imports, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the agreement will “effectively cut around 90% of oil imports from Russia to the EU by the end of the year.”

Other parts of the sanction package include assets freezes and travel bans on individuals, and excluding Russia’s biggest banks, Sberbank, from the SWIFT global financial transfer system. The EU is also barring three Russian state-owned broadcasters from distributing content in EU countries.

EU leaders also agreed to provide Ukraine with $9.7 billion in assistance for the country’s economy and reconstruction efforts.

Luhansk fighting

Fierce fighting has erupted on the streets of the eastern Ukraine city of Sievierodonetsk, with Kyiv’s forces trying desperately to fight off the Russian onslaught.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy characterized the situation as “indescribably difficult.” In a televised speech, he described capturing Sievierodonetsk as “a fundamental task for the occupiers” and said Ukraine was doing all it could to protect the city from a Russian takeover.

Russian troops have entered the city, power and communications have been knocked out, and “the city has been completely ruined,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and the wounded amid the street fighting,” the mayor said. Striuk said 12,000 to 13,000 civilians remain in the city that once had 100,000 residents. They are sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape the Russian assault.

Striuk estimated 1,500 civilians in the city have died since the war began, from Russian attacks as well as from a lack of medicine or treatment.

Sievierodonetsk, the last major Ukrainian-held population center in the eastern Luhansk province, has become the focus of Russian attacks as Moscow attempts to control the Donbas region after failing to topple Zelenskyy or capture the capital, Kyiv, during more than three months of fighting. Sievierodonetsk is about 140 kilometers from the Russian border.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian troops “use the same tactics over and over again. They shell for several hours — for three, four, five hours in a row — and then attack. Those who attack die. Then shelling and attack follow again and so on until they break through somewhere.”

In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden said he would not send rocket systems to Ukraine that could reach Russia. Ukraine has received extensive U.S. military aid but has requested more powerful rocket systems.

Toll on journalists

Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Monday that 32 media workers had been killed in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion.

That includes French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, who died Monday near Sievierodonetsk.

French broadcaster BFM TV said the 32-year-old journalist was hit by shrapnel while reporting on Ukrainian evacuations from the area.

French President Emmanuel Macron sent his condolences to the family and colleagues of Leclerc-Imhoff, writing in a tweet that the journalist died showing “the reality of the war.”

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who was in Ukraine on Monday, called for an investigation into the journalist’s death, saying in a statement that “France demands that a probe be carried out as soon as possible.”

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

Erdogan Discusses Turkey’s Syria Incursion Plans With Putin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has discussed Ankara’s planned military operation in northern Syria and the war in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan’s office said Monday.

In recent days Erdogan has said Turkey will launch a cross-border incursion against Kurdish militants in Syria to create a 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone. He told Putin in a phone call that the frontier zone was agreed to in 2019 but had not been implemented, the Turkish presidency said.

Ankara carried out an operation against the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in October 2019. Russia, the Syrian regime and the United States also have troops in the border region.

Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

However, the YPG forms the backbone of U.S.-led forces in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. The U.S. has not been happy with Turkey’s previous incursions into Syria.

Erdogan also told Putin that Turkey was ready to resume a role in ending the war in Ukraine, including taking part in a possible “observation mechanism” between Ukraine, Russia and the United Nations, the statement said.

Negotiations in Istanbul held in March failed to make any headway, but Turkey, which has close ties to both Kyiv and Moscow, has repeatedly put itself forward as a possible mediator.

The Turkish president also called for peace in Ukraine as soon as possible and for confidence-building steps to be taken.

In Washington, the National Security Council said national security adviser Jake Sullivan had called Ibrahim Kalin, chief adviser to Erdogan, to discuss the two nations’ support for Ukraine, but also to voice caution about actions in Syria.

Sullivan “reiterated the importance of refraining from escalation in Syria to preserve existing cease-fire lines and avoid any further destabilization,” said Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the National Security Council.

Greece Planning Major Wall Extension on Border With Turkey 

Greek authorities say they are planning a major extension of a wall along the country’s border with Turkey and are seeking European Union financial support for the additional construction. 

Notis Mitarachi, the migration affairs minister, said the steel wall would be extended from 40 to 120 kilometers (25 to 75 miles), with construction work due to start later this year.

“It is a government decision to extend the border wall further and we have requested European funding,” Mitarachi said, speaking in an interview Sunday with a radio station near Athens. The minister posted the audio of the interview on social media Monday. He gave no details on the projected cost of the project. 

Greece has accused neighbor and fellow-NATO ally Turkey of “instrumentalizing” migration as a means of exerting pressure on EU countries. That is an assertion rejected by Ankara, which says it has shouldered a disproportionately heavy burden, hosting some 4 million refugees, most of whom fled the civil war in neighboring Syria. 

Last year, 12 countries, including Greece, requested EU funding for border walls which are currently financed by national budgets.  

The EU Commission does not currently pay for wall construction at its external borders, arguing that it would drain funds from other migration-related activities, including financing the EU border protection agency, Frontex. 

EU Leaders Try to Break Deadlock on Russian Oil Sanctions at Summit 

The European Union heads of state meeting in Brussels Monday remain deadlocked over an oil embargo against Russia, with Hungary the key holdout.  The summit will continues Tuesday.

European Union leaders are reportedly considering a draft proposal that would temporarily exempt crude pipeline deliveries from any oil embargo against Russia, focusing for now on oil shipments. If agreed, the ban would be part of a sixth EU sanctions package against Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

Arriving at the summit, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen played down hopes for a quick breakthrough.

“We’ve now basically solved all the issues but one, and this is the question of crude oil by pipeline. And here the discussions are still ongoing. I have not too high expectations that we’re going to solve it in the next 48 hours, but thereafter,” she said.

Underscoring the difficult negotiations, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban criticized the EU’s executive arm and said there was no agreement so far.

“We are ready to support the package sanctions if there are solutions for the Hungarian supply security we haven’t got up to now,” he said.

Like Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are highly dependent on Russian energy and also have reservations over an oil embargo. But Hungary’s Orban has been the most vocal.

Until now, the EU has shown remarkable unity as it agrees to ever-tougher sanctions against Moscow.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said more needs to be done.

“As far as the war continues, we haven’t done enough. We have done a lot but still not enough, because still the war continues,” she said.

Some experts wonder just how long the EU’s 27 members will stay on the same page, as the Ukraine war drags on.

“It’s obviously difficult to predict the outcomes of the war just three months after it started, but one can imagine several scenarios of how it evolves, and some of them are highly divisive for Europeans,” said analyst Marie Dumoulin of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

She says EU unity could erode if, for example, there’s a messy and protracted cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia, or if Ukraine wants to retake control or cede areas captured by Russia before or during this war.

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to join the summit by video link with European leaders for continuing talks Tuesday.

36 Years Later, ‘Top Gun’ Again Tops North America Box Office

Much-anticipated action film “Top Gun: Maverick” was expected to have a big opening and it did not disappoint, taking in an estimated $151 million in North America for the four-day Memorial Day weekend, industry watcher Exhibitor Relations reported. 

Viewers had to wait 36 years to see the sequel to the original “Top Gun,” but critics say the Paramount/Skydance production was worth the wait, with some calling it superior to the original film. 

“The source material remains strong, the execution is excellent, and Tom Cruise makes it work impeccably well,” said analyst David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research. 

The film — whose release had been delayed two years by the COVID-19 pandemic — notched $124 million for the first three days of the holiday weekend and took in the same amount overseas, despite not playing in China or Russia. It was Cruise’s first opening to top $100 million. 

He again plays cocky (if grayer) navy test pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now a captain, as he trains to bomb a rogue nation’s uranium enrichment facility. A strong supporting cast includes Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller and Jon Hamm; original “Top Gun” veteran Val (Iceman) Kilmer appears briefly. 

Slipping a notch to second place was “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which in its fourth weekend took in $16.4 million for the Friday-through-Sunday period and $21.1 million for the full four days. 

The Disney film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, had opened to a year’s best $187 million. 

In third spot was 20th Century’s new “Bob’s Burgers Movie.” The animated film, based on a popular television show, earned $12.6 million for three days and $15 million for four. 

Focus Features’ “Downton Abbey: A New Era” took fourth place, with $5.9 million for three days and $7.5 million for four. Based on the hugely popular British series, it again stars Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery. 

And in fifth was Universal’s family-friendly animation “The Bad Guys,” at $4.6 million for three days and $6.1 million for four. 

Rounding out the top 10 were: 

“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” ($2.5 million for three days; $3.1 million for four) 

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” ($2.5 million; $3.1 million) 

“The Lost City” ($1.8 million; $2.3 million) 

“Men” ($1.2 million; $1.5 million) 

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” ($905,000; $1.1 million) 

 

French Journalist Killed in Ukraine

The French news broadcaster BFM TV said a 32-year-old French journalist was killed Monday in eastern Ukraine, fatally hit by shell shrapnel while covering a Ukrainian evacuation operation.

BFM TV said its journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff was killed as he was “covering a humanitarian operation in an armored vehicle” near Sievierodonetsk, a key city in the Donbas region that is being hotly contested by Russian and Ukrainian forces. He had worked for six years for the French television channel.

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Leclerc-Imhoff on Twitter.

He “was in Ukraine to show the reality of the war. Aboard a humanitarian bus, alongside civilians forced to flee to escape Russian bombs, he was fatally shot,” Macron tweeted.

Macron expressed condolences to his family, relatives and colleagues and spoke of “France’s unconditional support” to “those who carry out the difficult mission of informing in theaters of operations.”

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called the journalist’s death “deeply shocking.”

“France demands that a transparent inquiry be launched as soon as possible to shed full light on the circumstances of this tragedy,” she added.

Earlier Monday, the governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, announced Leclerc-Imhoff’s death in a Telegram post, saying that Russian forces fired on an armored vehicle that was traveling to pick up people for evacuation.

“Shrapnel from the shells pierced the vehicle’s armor, fatally wounding an accredited French journalist in the neck who was reporting on the evacuation. The patrol officer was saved by his helmet,” he wrote.

As a result of the attack, the evacuation was called off, Haidai said.

He posted an image of Leclerc-Imhoff’s Ukrainian press accreditation, and images of what he said was the aftermath of the attack.

Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said another French journalist was wounded along with a Ukrainian woman who was accompanying them.

He said Leclerc-Imhoff’s body was evacuated to the nearby Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, from where it will be taken to the central city of Dnipro for an autopsy.

He said the patrol officer accompanying the vehicle was hit by shrapnel in the head and taken to a military hospital.

Fierce Fighting Erupts on Streets of Sievierodonetsk in Eastern Ukraine

Fierce fighting has erupted on the streets of the eastern Ukraine city of Sievierodonetsk, with Kyiv’s forces trying desperately to fight off the Russian onslaught.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy characterized the situation as “indescribably difficult.” In a televised speech, he described capturing Sievierodonetsk as “a fundamental task for the occupiers” and said Ukraine was doing all it could to protect the city from a Russian takeover.

Russian troops have entered the city, power and communications have been knocked out and “the city has been completely ruined,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and the wounded amid the street fighting,” the mayor said. Striuk said 12,000 to 13,000 civilians remain in the city that once had 100,000 residents. They are sheltering in basements and bunkers to escape the Russian assault.

Striuk estimated 1,500 civilians in the city have died since the war began, from Russian attacks as well as from a lack of medicine or treatment.

Sievierodonetsk, the last major Ukrainian-held population center in the eastern Luhansk province, has become the focus of Russian attacks as Moscow attempts to control the Donbas region after failing to topple Zelenskyy or capture the capital, Kyiv, during more than three months of fighting. Sievierodonetsk is about 140 kilometers from the Russian border.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian troops “use the same tactics over and over again. They shell for several hours — for three, four, five hours in a row — and then attack. Those who attack die. Then shelling and attack follow again, and so on until they break through somewhere.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told France’s TF1 television Sunday that Moscow’s “unconditional priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” saying that Russia sees them as “independent states.”

Zelenskyy was set Monday to address the European Council as he pushes for more help for Ukraine and pressure on Russia to end its invasion.

The United States is continuing its arms shipments to Ukraine, but President Joe Biden said Monday that the U.S. will not send rocket systems that can reach Russia.

European Council President Charles Michel said in a letter ahead of a two-day session that Ukraine is “showing incredible courage and dignity in the face of the Russian aggression and atrocities.”   

“One of our most pressing concerns is assisting the Ukrainian state, along with our international partners, with its liquidity needs,” Michel said. “We will also discuss how best to organize our support for Ukraine’s reconstruction, as a major global effort will be required to rebuild the country.” 

Michel said the meetings would include addressing high energy prices linked to the conflict and a need to “accelerate our energy transition” in order to phase out European dependence on Russian fossil fuels, as well as discussing ways to deal with issues of food security and price increases. 

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

Eurovision Winners Auction Trophy for Army

Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, which won the Eurovision this year, has auctioned its trophy for a $900,000 donation to a foundation that helps the Ukrainian army.

The trophy — a large crystal microphone with the song contest’s logo — was put up for auction on Facebook.

The bidding ended Saturday night and was won by WhiteBIT, a Ukrainian bitcoin company. 

“You guys are amazing!” Kalush Orchestra wrote on Facebook late Sunday announcing the winner.

“Special thanks to the WhiteBIT team who bought the trophy for $900,000 and are now the rightful owners.”

The band said that funds raised in auction, which could be entered using cryptocurrencies, will be donated to the Prytula Foundation, which helps the Ukrainian army.

The group Kalush Orchestra won the European contest on May 14 with its song “Stefania” mixing hip-hop and traditional music.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, was excluded from the competition.

Popular Punjabi Rapper Sidhu Moose Wala Shot Dead at 28 

Indian police are investigating the murder of a popular Punjabi rapper who blended hip-hop, rap and folk music, a day after he was fatally shot, officials said Monday. 

Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, also known around the world by his stage name Sidhu Moose Wala, was killed Sunday evening while driving his car in Mansa, a district in northern India’s Punjab state. Moose Wala, 28, was rushed to the hospital where he was declared dead.  

Punjab state’s top police official VK Bhawra said the initial investigation has revealed the killing to be an inter-gang rivalry. 

A day before the attack, the Punjab government had pulled security cover for over 400 individuals, including Moose Wala, in a bid to clamp down on VIP culture, local media reports said. 

Moose Wala started off as a songwriter before a hit song in 2017 catapulted his singing career, making him well known among the Indian and Punjabi diaspora in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. 

Most of his singles have an English title even though the songs were mainly sung in Punjabi. His glossy music videos were most famous for his rap lyrics and often focused on macho culture. His debut album in 2018 made it to Canada’s Billboard Albums chart.     

Moose Wala was a controversial figure, in part due to his lyrical style. In 2020, police charged him under India’s Arms Act for allegedly promoting gun culture in one of his songs. 

His latest track, “The Last Ride,” was released earlier this month. 

The rapper joined India’s Congress Party last year and unsuccessfully ran in the state’s assembly elections. 

Punjab’s chief minister Bhagwant Mann said, “no culprit will be spared” and that he was deeply shocked and saddened by the murder. 

Rahul Gandhi, a senior Congress leader, took to Twitter to express his condolences over the killing.     

“Deeply shocked and saddened by the murder of promising Congress leader and talented artist,” he said.   

Zelenskyy Seeking More Help from Europe

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to address the European Council Monday as he pushes for more help for Ukraine and more pressure on Russia to end its invasion.  

European Council President Charles Michel said in a letter ahead of a two-day session that Ukraine is “showing incredible courage and dignity in the face of the Russian aggression and atrocities.”  

“One of our most pressing concerns is assisting the Ukrainian state, along with our international partners, with its liquidity needs,” Michel said.  “We will also discuss how best to organize our support for Ukraine’s reconstruction, as a major global effort will be required to rebuild the country.”  

Michel said the meetings would include addressing high energy prices linked to the conflict and a need to “accelerate our energy transition” in order to phase out European dependence on Russian fossil fuels, as well as discussing ways to deal with issues of food security and price hikes. 

In eastern Ukraine, Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said Monday fighting was intense in Sievierodonetsk, the last Ukrainian-controlled city in the region, with Russian forces reaching the outskirts of the city. 

Zelenskyy said in a video address late Sunday that seizing the city “is a fundamental task for the occupiers” and that Ukraine will do all it can “to hold this advance.”  

He said Russian attacks have damaged 90% of the buildings in Sievierodonetsk, knocking out telecommunication and destroying more than two-thirds of the city’s housing.  

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said told French TF1 television Sunday that Russia’s “unconditional priority is the liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”  He said Russia views the areas as “independent states.”  

Russia turned much of its attention to Donetsk and Luhansk, in the Donbas region, after redeploying many of its forces that had initially moved on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and faced fierce resistance in the initial stages of the invasion it launched in late February.  

Kharkiv visit  

Zelenskyy made a rare visit outside Kyiv Sunday to meet Ukrainian forces in the eastern city of Kharkiv, a trip meant to highlight Ukraine’s success in driving Russia away from Ukraine’s second-largest city.   

Zelenskyy was briefed on current operations in the city and presented state awards to the troops.   

“I want to thank each of you for your service,” Zelenskyy said. “You are risking your life for all of us and our state. Thank you for defending Ukraine’s independence. Take care!”    

But while also praising regional officials Sunday, Zelenskyy said Kharkiv’s security chief had been fired for “not working to defend the city from the first days of the full-scale war.”  

Ukrainian regional military administrator Oleh Synyehubov said 31% of the Kharkiv region is still occupied by Russian forces.   

Ukraine mounted a new counteroffensive Sunday to reclaim land around the southern port city of Kherson.  

Kherson has served as a staging ground for Russian forces in southern Ukraine, the first major city to fall to Moscow’s forces as they swept north out of Crimea more than three months ago.    

But Sunday, the Ukrainian military said on Twitter, “Hold on Kherson, we’re coming.” 

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

Mona Lisa Left Unharmed But Smeared in Cream in Climate Protest Stunt

The Mona Lisa was left shaken but unharmed on Sunday when a visitor to the Louvre tried to smash the glass protecting the world’s most famous painting before smearing cream across its surface in an apparent climate-related publicity stunt.

The perpetrator was a young man disguised as an old lady who jumped out of a wheelchair before attacking the glass.

“Maybe this is just nuts to me…,” posted the author of a video of the incident’s aftermath that shows a Louvre staffer cleaning the glass. “(He) then proceeds to smear cake on the glass, and throws roses everywhere before being tackled by security.”

The Louvre was not immediately available for comment.

Another video posted on social media showed the same staffer finishing cleaning the pane while another attendant removes a wheelchair from in front of the Da Vinci masterpiece. 

“Think of the earth, people are destroying the earth”, the man, dressed in a wig, said in French in another video posting that showed him being led away from the Paris gallery with the wheelchair, indicating that the incident likely had an environmentalist motive.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: May 30

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All times EDT:

1:45 a.m.: The European Council prepares for its May 30-31 meeting in Brussels during which council members will discuss Ukraine, energy food security, and defense.

“Ukraine is showing incredible courage and dignity in the face of the Russian aggression and atrocities,” said Council President Charles Michel in his invitation to the meeting. “From the very first day, we have been unwavering in our humanitarian, financial, military and political support to the Ukrainian people and their leadership. We will continue putting pressure on Russia. Our unity has always been our strongest asset. It remains our guiding principle.”

According to the council’s website, the members of the European Council are the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states, the European Council President, and the President of the European Commission.

12:52 a.m.: The wife of a Ukrainian soldier who fought at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol is concerned about her husband. Since Ukrainian forces lay down their arms as they declared their mission at the plant over, she has not heard what happened to him, CNN reports.

 

12:01 a.m.: In The Guardian, Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik said she is concerned the war in Ukraine will become “the new normal.” She warns that, without more help from the west, her country could be defeated.