Ankara Could Get F16s but US–Turkey Ties Remain Fraught

Aiming to secure support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO, U.S. President Joe Biden signaled a transactional approach in his engagement with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The newly reelected Turkish leader has been one of the most consequential yet complicated members of the transatlantic military alliance. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report. Contributor: Anita Powell

Ankara Could Get F16s but US-Turkey Ties Remain Fraught

Aiming to secure support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO, U.S. President Joe Biden signaled a transactional approach in his engagement with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The newly reelected Turkish leader has been one of the most consequential yet complicated members of the transatlantic military alliance.

Biden spoke with Erdogan on Monday to congratulate him on winning his third presidential term and said the two had discussed the issue of Sweden’s NATO accession and Turkey’s request to overhaul and expand its fleet of American-made F-16 fighter jets.

“He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let’s get that done. And so, we’ll be back in touch with one another,” Biden said, adding that they will talk more about it “next week.”

This is the first time Biden has linked the two issues together. Neither the White House nor the Turkish government mentioned the potential F-16 sale in their readout of the call.

U.S. administration officials have repeatedly rejected suggestions of a quid pro quo between the transatlantic military alliance’s expansion and a weapons sale.

“That’s not a condition,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated during her press briefing Tuesday. “President Biden has long been clear that he supports selling F-16s.”

On Tuesday, during a joint news conference with Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Lulea, Sweden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that both issues “should go forward as quickly as possible.”

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in May 2022. The bids, which must be approved by all NATO members, were held up by objections from Turkey and Hungary though Finland’s bid was finally approved in April.


Ankara has long sought to purchase 40 F-16 fighter jets made by U.S. company Lockheed Martin and nearly 80 modernization kits for its air force’s existing warplanes — a $20 billion transaction.

The F-16 jets make up the bulk of Turkey’s combat aircraft after the Trump administration in 2019 expelled Ankara from the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet program over its decision to acquire Russian-made S-400 air defense systems.

The U.S. Congress, which has authority to block major weapons sales, objects to F-16 sales for reasons beyond NATO enlargement. It wants Ankara to ease tensions with Greece, refrain from invading northern Syria and enforce sanctions against Russia for its war on Ukraine.

In April, about two weeks after Turkey ratified its support for Finland joining NATO, Washington approved a $259 million sale of avionics software upgrades for Ankara’s current fleet of F-16 fighter aircraft. But Sweden’s bid is still held up because Ankara believes that Stockholm is harboring “terrorists” — militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984.

Swedish lawmakers have passed legislation tightening the country’s anti-terrorism laws, a move expected to help persuade Turkey. U.S. and Swedish officials have expressed hope that Sweden’s membership will be confirmed by the time NATO leaders meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, in mid-July.

While Erdogan is likely to leverage his support for Sweden, he is also a pragmatist, said Asli Aydintaşbaş, a Turkish journalist and visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings.

“What we are going to see is a bit of a last-minute drama heading up to the Vilnius summit,” Aydıntaşbaş told VOA. “At the end, it’s possible that this will be resolved on the night of the summit.”

Fraught relations

F-16s aside, U.S.-Turkish ties will remain fraught, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who now chairs the Middle East program at the Wilson Center.

“It’s a complicated, transactional relationship,” Jeffrey told VOA. “It’s never 100% on our side. We’re hoping it won’t be more than 50% away from us, but a lot depends on the personal relationship between Biden and Erdogan. It’s been frosty; the call is a good first step.”

Solid ties with Ankara will be “dramatically strategic in terms of containing Russia,” as well as containing Iran and terrorist movements in the region — all key goals for Washington, Jeffrey added.

However, Erdogan’s friendly ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin while NATO helps Ukraine to fend off a Russian invasion have made Western officials uneasy.

“We are not bound by the West’s sanctions,” Erdogan said in a CNN interview earlier this month. “We are a strong state, and we have a positive relationship with Russia.”

Ankara has calibrated its response to the war in Ukraine consistent with its own strategic interests, condemning the invasion and restricting Russian warships and military flights across its territory while refusing to join Western sanctions on Russia and expanding its trade ties with Moscow.

At the same time Erdogan has maintained good ties with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His government has provided aid and drones to Ukraine and was instrumental in the U.N.-backed deal allowing Ukrainian grain ships access to global markets via the Black Sea.


The Turkish decision to acquire S-400 air defense systems remains the thorniest issue for the U.S., said Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“That one’s going to be really difficult to solve,” he told VOA.

Washington insists it won’t allow Ankara back into its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program until Ankara abandons the Russian-made weapons. Earlier this month, Turkish media reported that Ankara rejected the Biden administration’s request for Turkey to send its S-400 air defense systems to Ukraine.

Next week, Biden will host British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. The leaders are expected to discuss the issue of NATO enlargement, including how to get Ankara on board.

“Those are good interlocutors for the president,” Jeffrey said. “Those are people who understand the geostrategic situation in Europe.”

Anita Powell contributed to this report.

Taliban Call for Stop to Afghan Brain Drain

The Taliban have called on Western countries to stop evacuating and resettling educated and skilled Afghans abroad, saying the practice hurts Afghanistan.

Boasting about improved security in the war-ravaged country, Taliban leaders say all Afghans, including those who had worked for the previous Afghan government, are safe at home and can live and work freely.

“The world should also listen to this message that they should not open [immigration] cases for Afghans under the impression that their lives are at risk here,” Amir Khan Muttaqi, Taliban acting foreign minister, said on Tuesday.

“They should not hurt Afghanistan’s talents, Afghanistan’s scientific cadres and Afghanistan’s prides, and should not take them out of this country.”

Tens of thousands of Afghans, mostly educated individuals who worked under the previous U.S.-backed government, have fled their country over the past two years fearing Taliban persecution.

The United Nations and other human rights groups have accused the Taliban of extrajudicial detention, torture and execution of some members of the former Afghan security personnel — charges the Taliban deny.

The United States, Canada and several European countries have admitted more than 150,000 Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers since the Taliban seized power in August 2021.

Last week, Khairullah Khairkhwa, Taliban acting minister for information and culture, alleged that Kabul University lecturers were receiving invitations from abroad to apply for migration.

The remarks were made in response to media reports that more than half of Kabul University lecturers, about 400 individuals, have migrated out of Afghanistan largely because of security concerns, Taliban restrictions, and other social and economic hardships.

Hundreds of media professionals have also left Afghanistan, leading to significant setbacks to free media, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Risky migration

Last week, the bodies of 18 Afghan emigrants, who died in February while being smuggled to Europe, were brought to Kabul.

It took several months to transfer the bodies from Bulgaria to Afghanistan, for which Taliban officials blame “unjust” Western sanctions.

The Taliban regime is not recognized by any country, and the United States has imposed terrorism-related economic and travel sanctions on Taliban leaders and institutions.

Dozens of Afghans, including women and children, reportedly perished in a shipwreck off the southern coast of Italy in February.

At least 1,645 Afghan migrants were reported missing or dead from 2014 to 2022, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Millions of Afghans are scattered around the world as refugees, asylum-seekers and emigrants, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, which has ranked Afghanistan as the fourth-largest refugee exporting country in the world after Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine.

Insecurity, poverty, unemployment and expectations of better living conditions are considered the main drivers of migration from Afghanistan.

In public statements, Taliban officials offer immediate employment to Afghans with specific technical expertise.

“Send me anyone with a Ph.D. or master’s degree in geodesy, exploration or probing of fuel, and I will employ him the next day,” Shahabuddin Delawar, Taliban minister for mines, said last week.

The Islamist regime has defied widespread international calls to form an inclusive government.

The Taliban have strictly monopolized the government, refusing to share power with any group or non-Taliban individual. Women are particularly excluded for all political and senior positions.

Suspending the constitution, the Taliban have dissolved Afghanistan’s national assembly, election bodies and the national human rights commission, and have centered all powers in the hands of their unseen supreme leader.

European Leaders Head to Moldova for Symbolic Summit on Ukraine’s Doorstep

More than 40 European leaders plan to meet in Moldova on Thursday in a show of support for the former Soviet republic and neighboring Ukraine as Kyiv prepares to launch a counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces. 

The gathering of the EU’s 27 member states and 20 other European countries at a castle deep in Moldovan wine country will touch on a range of strategic issues and launch a new EU partnership mission in the country. But the focus will be on a symbolic show of unity on Ukraine’s doorstep. 

“If you sit in Moscow and see 47 countries in your immediate or close neighborhood meeting together, that’s an important message,” an EU official told reporters ahead of the summit, which takes place 40 km (25 miles) southeast of the capital Chisinau. 

A country of 2.5 million lodged between Ukraine and NATO member Romania, Moldova has taken in more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other country just as food and energy prices soared as a result of the conflict. 

The government has accused Moscow of trying to destabilize the mainly Romanian-speaking country using its influence over the separatist movement in mainly Russian-speaking Transnistria. 

SEE ALSO: A related video by Ricardo Marquina

The summit, the second meeting of the European Political Community, the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, will discuss issues from cyber-security to migration and energy security. It will also provide an opportunity to discuss tensions in the continent ranging from Azerbaijan and Armenia to recent clashes in northern Kosovo. 

It comes as Kyiv is preparing for a counteroffensive using recently acquired Western weapons to try to drive Russian occupiers from territory seized in what Moscow calls a special military operation to protect Russian speakers. 

EU ambitions 

Moldova, like Ukraine, applied to join the European Union last year shortly after the Russian invasion, and Chisinau is planning to use the summit to showcase reforms and convince leaders to open accession talks as soon as possible. 

“For us, the presence of 50 leaders in Moldova is a milestone … it’s the biggest foreign policy event Moldova has ever hosted,” said Olga Rosca, President Maia Sandu’s foreign policy adviser. 

“It’s our way of anchoring our future in Europe and in the EU. It’s our way of accelerating the EU accession process.” 

Moldova’s aim, she added, is for a decision to be taken at the European Council Summit in December so that accession talks can begin at the start of 2024. 

Some fear differing expectations among participating countries and the sheer size of the summit, for which France has provided logistical and security support, will be an obstacle to delivering concrete policy wins. 

The political diversity and traditional rivalries between some of participants, from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Greece and Turkey, may also complicate matters. 

“With events in Ukraine it’s useful, as is the discussion on energy supplies and migration. So I think for now it’s suck it and see,” one senior European diplomat said. 

At its inaugural summit in Prague last year, an EU-led effort to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia did make some progress. On Thursday, their leaders will hold talks with the EU, Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.  

 Turkey to Investigate Media Outlets Over Election Coverage 

Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog on Tuesday announced it is investigating six opposition TV channels for “insulting the public” through coverage of Sunday’s presidential election runoff.

The Radio and Television Supreme Council, or RTUK, said viewers had complained about election coverage, but did not provide specific examples. 

One of the channels under investigation —Tele 1— said on its website that the action shows the “government’s censorship device is at work.”

The inquiry comes two days after President Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won the second round of the presidential election on Sunday.  

Assaults on press freedom bookended this election. Ahead of the vote, several journalists were arrested, detained, sentenced to jail time and assaulted — often over coverage about the election, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.  

Freedom of expression both online and offline has sharply declined in Turkey over the past decade, according to Cathryn Grothe, a research analyst at Freedom House.  

“President Erdogan and the AKP have increasingly exerted control over the media environment by censoring independent news outlets and silencing those who criticize the government or its policies,” Grothe told VOA.  

“The RTUK’s recent investigation into six opposition television channels on politically motivated charges of ‘insulting the public’ is just another example of how Turkish authorities will go to extensive lengths to control the narrative and silence the opposition,” Grothe said.  

The investigation was also of little surprise to Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF. 

“We now know that the ultimate goal of those who say, ‘death to criticism’ is to completely silence those who make different voices arbitrarily,” Onderoglu said. 

Turkey’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment. 

The media outlets under RTUK investigation are Halk TV, Tele 1, KRT TV, TV 5, Flash Haber TV and Szc TV. 

In April, RTUK fined three of those channels over coverage, including for reports that were critical of earthquake rescue efforts or that included opposition voices criticizing the AKP policy.

In 2022, RTUK issued 54 penalties to five independent broadcasters, compared to just four against pro-government channels, according to the free expression group Article 19.

“RTUK has long been an apparatus of [authorities],” said Faruk Eren, the head of the press union of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey.

“More difficult days await journalists,” he told VOA. 

RTUK has previously dismissed criticism of how it operates, saying it acts in accordance with Turkish law and “stands up for pluralism, press freedom and free news.”

Media and rights analysts have raised concerns over what another Erdogan term will mean for civil society after a presidency marked by a crackdown on media, internet censorship and hostility to minority groups, the Associated Press reported.

Overall, Turkey ranks poorly on the World Press Freedom Index, coming in at 165 out of 180 countries, where 1 denotes the best environment for media, says RSF.

“One part of me thinks that it’s par for the course. We’ve become accustomed to this,” said Sinan Ciddi, a fellow on Turkey at the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. But, Ciddi told VOA, there are concerns that Erdogan will use his new term to crack down even harder on press freedom. 

“I’m of the opinion he basically lets things continue as they are,” Ciddi said, “simply because that’s his way of demonstrating to the world, ‘Hey, look, we have press freedom. There are channels and outlets which hate me.’”  

The timing of the inquiry just two days after the election is concerning said Suay Boulougouris, who researches Turkish digital rights at the free expression group Article 19.  

No one was under the impression that another Erdogan term would bring about advancements to human rights and press freedom in Turkey, Boulougouris said, but this inquiry sets the tone for the next five years in a distressing way.  

“It’s known that RTUK is weaponized to challenge or suppress these TV channels,” Boulougouris told VOA. “Launching this inquiry so quickly, right after the elections, to me indicates that chances are really low for political change and democratic reforms in Turkey.”  

To Ciddi, critical voices “will want to keep the fight going.”  

“Going forward, we can expect a rallying cry for media and independence,” he said.  

Hilmi Hacaloglu contributed to this report.

British PM Rishi Sunak to Visit Washington Next Week for Talks with Biden

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will hold talks with U.S. President Joe Biden next week when they will discuss improving economic ties and how to sustain military support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

Sunak will be in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday next week for meetings with Biden, members of Congress and U.S. business leaders, but there will no talks about a formal free trade deal, Sunak’s spokesman said on Tuesday.

“The visit will be an opportunity to build on the discussions that the prime minister and President Biden have had in recent months about enhancing the level of cooperation and coordination between the UK and U.S. on the economic challenges that will define our future,” the spokesman said.

“There will also be an opportunity to discuss issues including sustaining our support for Ukraine.”

Sunak, who will be on his first official visit to Washington since he was appointed prime minister in October, wants to forge better relations with the U.S. after they were strained by Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2020.

In April, a White House official was forced to deny Biden was “anti-British” after he spent over half a day in the British province of Northern Ireland before he traveled south to the Irish Republic for 2½ days of meetings.

The Biden administration has shown little interest in negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United Kingdom, which British supporters of leaving the EU once touted as one of the main benefits of its departure from the bloc.

Discussions had progressed during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, before Biden came to power and then the talks stalled.

Sunak’s spokesman said on Tuesday there would not be talks about a free-trade agreement on this visit, but instead there would be a focus on reducing trade barriers in other ways such as agreements with individual states.

The White House said in a statement the two leaders would also discuss the situation in Northern Ireland, which has been without a devolved government for more than a year.

Britain’s relationship with the United States is partly built on close defense, intelligence, economic and cultural ties and the two sides are largely in lockstep in supporting Ukraine.

Sunak accepted Biden’s invitation to visit the White House in March when the two leaders met in San Diego to inaugurate the next phase of a submarine alliance between the United States, Britain and Australia, known as AUKUS.

The two men appeared to get along well on that visit, with Biden noting that Sunak is a graduate of Stanford University and asking for a visit to the home he still owns in Santa Monica.

5 Greek Border Police Officers Arrested on Suspicion of Working With Migrant Smugglers

Greek authorities said Monday they had arrested five police officers from a special border guard force on suspicion of working with smugglers to help migrants cross into the country from neighboring Turkey. 

A police statement said the five suspects are believed to have facilitated the entry of at least 100 people since late October, using boats to cross the Evros River that runs along the northeastern Greek land border with Turkey. 

During the arrests in the border town of Didymoteicho Monday, police confiscated some $28,000 in cash, and nearly 60 mobile phones. The operation followed an investigation by the police internal affairs squad. 

The Evros is a key crossing point into Greece for people seeking a better life in the European Union. Greece has built a high fence along much of the border to prevent migrant entries and is planning to further extend it. 

Why Do Kosovo-Serbia Tensions Persist?

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo flared anew this weekend after Kosovo’s police raided Serb-dominated areas in the region’s north and seized local municipality buildings.

Violent clashes between Kosovo’s police and NATO-led peacekeepers on one side and local Serbs on the other have left several people injured on both sides.

The violence led Serbia to raise the combat readiness of its troops stationed near the border and warned it won’t stand by if Serbs in Kosovo are attacked again. The situation has again fueled fears of a renewal of the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo that claimed more than 10,000 lives and left more than 1 million homeless.

Why are Serbia and Kosovo at odds?

Kosovo is a mainly ethnic Albanian-populated territory that was formerly a province of Serbia. It declared independence in 2008.

Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s statehood and still considers it a part of Serbia, even though it has no formal control there.

Kosovo’s independence has been recognized by about 100 countries, including the United States, Russia and China, while five European Union nations have sided with Serbia.

The deadlock has kept tensions simmering and prevented full stabilization of the Balkan region after the bloody wars in the 1990s.

What’s the latest flare-up about?

After Serbs boycotted last month’s local elections held in northern Kosovo — where Serbs represent a majority — newly elected ethnic Albanian mayors needed the help of Kosovo’s riot police to move into their offices last Friday.

Serbs tried to prevent them from taking over the premises, but police fired tear gas to disperse them.

On Monday, Serbs staged a protest in front of the municipality buildings, triggering a tense standoff that resulted in fierce clashes between the Serbs and local police, along with Kosovo peacekeepers.

The election boycott followed a collective resignation in November by Serb officials from the area, including administrative staff, judges, and police officers.

How deep is the ethnic conflict in Kosovo?

The dispute over Kosovo is centuries old. Serbia cherishes the region as the heart of its statehood and religion.

Numerous medieval Serb Orthodox Christian monasteries are in Kosovo. Serb nationalists view a 1389 battle against Ottoman Turks there as a symbol of its national struggle.

Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians view Kosovo as their country and accuse Serbia of occupation and repression. Ethnic Albanian rebels launched a rebellion in 1998 to rid the country of Serbian rule.

Belgrade’s brutal response prompted a NATO intervention in 1999, which forced Serbia to pull out and cede control to international peacekeepers.

What is the situation locally?

There are constant tensions between the Kosovo government and the Serbs who live mainly in the north of the country and keep close ties with Belgrade.

Attempts by the central government to impose more control in the Serb-dominated north are usually met with resistance from Serbs.

Mitrovica, the main town in the north, has been effectively divided into an ethnic Albanian part and a Serb-held part, and the two sides rarely mix. There are also smaller Serb-populated enclaves in the south of Kosovo, while tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs live in central Serbia, where they fled together with the withdrawing Serb troops in 1999.

Have there been attempts to resolve the dispute?

There have been constant international efforts to find common ground between the two former wartime foes, but there has been no final comprehensive agreement.

EU officials have mediated negotiations designed to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Numerous agreements have been reached during those negotiations, but they were rarely implemented on the ground. Some areas have seen results, such as introducing freedom of movement within the country.

An idea has been floated for border changes and land swaps as the way forward, but this was rejected by many EU countries out of fears that it could cause a chain reaction in other ethnically mixed areas in the Balkans and trigger more trouble in the region that went through bloody wars in the 1990s.

Who are the main players?

Both Kosovo and Serbia are led by nationalist leaders who haven’t shown readiness for a compromise.

In Kosovo, Albin Kurti, a former student protest leader and political prisoner in Serbia, leads the government and is the main negotiator in EU-mediated talks. He was also known as a fierce supporter of Kosovo’s unification with Albania and is against any compromise with Serbia.

Serbia is led by populist President Aleksandar Vucic, who was information minister during the war in Kosovo. The former ultranationalist insists that any solution must be a compromise in order to last and says Serbia won’t settle unless it gains something.

What happens next?

International officials are hoping to speed up negotiations and reach a solution in the coming months.

Both nations must normalize ties if they want to advance toward EU membership. No major breakthrough would mean prolonged instability, economic decline and constant potential for clashes.

Any Serbian military intervention in Kosovo would mean a clash with NATO peacekeepers stationed there. Belgrade controls Kosovo’s Serbs, and Kosovo can’t become a member of the U.N. and a functional state without resolving the dispute with Serbia.

Poland Imposes Sanctions on 365 Belarusians Over ‘Draconian’ Verdict Against Journalist

Poland imposed sanctions Monday on 365 Belarusian citizens and froze the financial assets of 20 entities and 16 other people associated with the Russian capital in reaction to what it condemned as a “draconian” verdict against a journalist.

Under the sanctions announced by Poland’s interior ministry, the 365 Belarusians will be barred from entering the Schengen area, an area of visa-free travel in Europe. The group includes lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, members of state media, athletes and people working for state enterprises.

The move is the latest development amid a tense relationship between Poland, a member of NATO and the European Union, and Belarus, a country on its northeastern border that is allied with Russia and led by an authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994.

“These people promoted the Belarusian regime and were also involved in legitimizing and supporting the repressive policy of the authorities in Minsk. They are also responsible for the politically motivated sentence against Andrzej Poczobut, issued on false charges,” the interior ministry said.

Belarus’ Supreme Court on Friday upheld an eight-year prison sentence against Poczobut, a prominent member of the country’s sizable Polish minority and a correspondent for a top newspaper in Poland.

The rulings against Poczobut, a 50-year-old reporter with Poland’s liberal Gazeta Wyborcza daily, is seen as part of the Belarusian government’s sweeping crackdown on opposition figures, human rights activists and independent reporters.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called Poland’s move “an important gesture of solidarity with Andrzej Poczobut and all Belarusians who suffer at the hands of the regime.”

“All political prisoners must be released from prison without any conditions,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “It is also a message to all those who support the regime with their positions and actions. We hope that other countries will follow this example, and those responsible for political court verdicts will be held accountable for their actions.”

As Poland announced the sanctions, migrants were stuck at Poland’s border wall with Belarus. Polish human rights activists said that they heard from the migrants that the Belarusian forces would not let them turn back. Meanwhile, Polish authorities would not allow them in to request asylum.

UN Talks on Treaty to End Global Plastic Pollution Open in Paris

A United Nations committee met in Paris Monday to work on what is intended to be a landmark treaty to bring an end to global plastic pollution, but there is little agreement yet on what the outcome should be. 

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics is charged with developing the first international, legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. This is the second of five meetings due to take place to complete the negotiations by the end of 2024. 

At the first meeting, held six months ago in Uruguay, some countries pressed for global mandates, some for national solutions and others for both. 

Because it’s an extremely short timeline for treaty negotiations, experts say that in this second session it’s critical that decisions are made about the objectives and scope of the text — such as what kind of plastics it will focus on. But that is easier said than done. Over 2,000 participants, including governments and observers, from nearly 200 countries have descended on the meeting hosted at the Paris-based U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO. 

One fundamental issue being considered Monday is the system of voting on decisions for each nation, which has already produced lively debate and delays in the plenary sessions that are due to end Friday. 

Humanity produces more than 430 million tons of plastic annually, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste, filling the ocean and, often, working their way into the human food chain, the United Nations Environment Program said in April. Plastic waste produced globally is set to almost triple by 2060, with about half ending up in landfills and under a fifth recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

The treaty could focus on human health and the environment, as desired by the self-named “high ambition coalition” of countries, led by Norway and Rwanda, with limits on plastic production and restrictions on some of the chemicals used in plastics. The coalition is committed to an international, legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution by 2040. It says that this is necessary to protect human health and the environment while helping to restore biodiversity and curb climate change. 

Alternatively, the treaty could have a more limited scope to address plastic waste and scale up recycling, as some of the plastic-producing and oil and gas exporters want. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Countries supporting this plan include the United States, Saudi Arabia and China. The U.S. delegation in Uruguay said national plans would allow governments to prioritize the most important sources and types of plastic pollution. Many plastics and chemical companies want this approach, too, with a plastic waste treaty that prioritizes recycling. 

The International Council of Chemical Associations, the World Plastics Council, the American Chemistry Council and other companies that make, use and recycle plastics say they want an agreement that eliminates plastic pollution while “retaining the societal benefits of plastics.” They’re calling themselves the “global partners for plastics circularity.” They say that modern plastic materials are used around the world to create essential and often life-saving products, many of which are critical to a lower-carbon, more sustainable future. 

Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, said countries are so different “a one-size fits all approach won’t be effective, equitable, or implementable. Instead, the agreement should require national action plans as that will most effectively eliminate plastic pollution specific to a country’s situation.” 

The International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, wants a treaty that restricts chemicals used to make plastic that are harmful to human health and the environment. 

“To focus on plastic waste in this treaty would be a failure because you have to look at plastic production to solve the crisis — including the extraction of fossil fuels and the toxic chemical additives,” said Dr. Tadesse Amera, the network’s co-chair. 

IPEN’s international coordinator, Björn Beeler, said countries need to plan by the end of this week to write up an initial draft of the treaty text so it can be negotiated at the third meeting. 

“If there’s no text to negotiate, you’re just continuing to share ideas,” he said. “Then because of the timeline, we could be looking at an early failure.” 

Ukrainian Teen Barely Escapes War-Torn Bakhmut Alive

Depending on who you ask, the city of Bakhmut or separate parts of it are during any given week either controlled by Russian troops or by the Ukrainian Army. But the reality is that the city is in ruins and has been a dangerous and even deadly place for civilians, including some children who stayed during the fighting. Omelyan Oshchudlyak has one 16-year-old’s story. VOA footage by Yuriy Dankevych.

Russia Issues Arrest Warrant for US Senator Graham Over Ukraine Comments

Russia’s Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant Monday for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham following his comments related to the fighting in Ukraine.

In an edited video of his meeting Friday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that was released by Zelenskyy’s office, Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, noted that “the Russians are dying” and described the U.S. military assistance to the country as “the best money we’ve ever spent.”

While Graham appeared to have made the remarks in different parts of the conversation, the short video by Ukraine’s presidential office put them next to each other, causing outrage in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented Sunday by saying that “it’s hard to imagine a greater shame for the country than having such senators.”

The Investigative Committee, the country’s top criminal investigation agency, has moved to open a criminal inquiry against Graham, and the Interior Ministry followed up by issuing a warrant for his arrest as indicated Monday by its official record of wanted criminal suspects.

Graham is among more than 200 U.S. members of Congress whom Moscow banned last year from entering Russia.

Graham commented on Twitter, saying that “to know that my commitment to Ukraine has drawn the ire of Putin’s regime brings me immense joy.”

“I will continue to stand with and for Ukraine’s freedom until every Russian soldier is expelled from Ukrainian territory,” he tweeted. “I will wear the arrest warrant issued by Putin’s corrupt and immoral government as a Badge of Honor.”

At Least Three People Dead in Boat Accident in Northern Italy

At least three people died and one person is missing after a 16-meter tourist boat capsized and sank on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy Sunday evening. 

Divers backed by a helicopter continued to search for the missing person. 

An air ambulance, several emergency vehicles, and firefighters, as well as the Coast Guard and the police were involved in the rescue and search.    

The National Fire and Rescue Service said 20 people managed to swim ashore or were rescued by other boats, and five of them were taken to area hospitals for medical attention.    

Rescue efforts, however, were slowed by heavy rain and darkness, authorities said. 

Italian media reported that the boat was carrying 24 people, including passengers and crew. The passengers were celebrating a birthday when a violent storm suddenly developed over the lake and strong winds overturned the boat. All the passengers ended up in the icy waters of Lake Maggiore.   

Unconfirmed reports in local media said that the passengers were British, Italian, and Israeli nationals. 

Lake Maggiore is located on the south side of the Alps on the border between Italy and Switzerland. It is a popular destination for tourists.  

Kosovo Serbs Gather to Take Over Municipality Buildings in the North

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo on Monday tried to take over the local government buildings where Albanian mayors entered last week with the help of police. 

Kosovar police and NATO-led Kosovo Force were seen protecting the municipality building in Zvecan, one of the four communes to hold snap elections last month that were largely boycotted by ethnic Serbs. Only ethnic Albanian or other smaller-minority representatives were elected in the mayoral posts and assemblies. 

More than a dozen Serbs and five Kosovar police officers were injured in clashes last Friday, and Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo were put on high alert the same day. 

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, who are a majority in that part of the country, tried to block recently elected ethnic Albanian officials from entering municipal buildings. Kosovo police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and let the new officials into the offices. 

The United States and the European Union condemned Kosovo’s government for using police to forcibly enter the municipal buildings. 

On Sunday evening, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, plus the United States and the European Union in Kosovo, again issued a statement saying they strongly caution “all parties against other threats or actions which could impact on a safe and secure environment, including freedom of movement, and that could inflame tensions or promote conflict.” 

At a rally Friday evening in Belgrade with his supporters, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said “Serbia won’t sit idle the moment Serbs in northern Kosovo are attacked.” 

However, any attempt by Serbia to send its troops over the border would mean a clash with NATO troops stationed there. 

A 2013 Pristina-Belgrade agreement on forming the Serb association was later declared unconstitutional by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court, which said the plan wasn’t inclusive of other ethnicities and could entail the use of executive powers to impose laws. 

The two sides have tentatively agreed to back an EU plan on how to proceed, but tensions still simmer. 

The U.S. and the EU have stepped up efforts to help solve the Kosovo-Serbia dispute, fearing further instability in Europe as war rages in Ukraine. The EU has made it clear to both Serbia and Kosovo they must normalize relations to advance in their intentions to join the bloc. 

The conflict in Kosovo erupted in 1998 when separatist ethnic Albanians rebelled against Serbia’s rule, and Serbia responded with a brutal crackdown. About 13,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians, died. NATO’s military intervention in 1999 eventually forced Serbia to pull out of the territory. Washington and most EU countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, but Serbia, Russia and China have not. 

Mushroom Coffin a Last Best Wish for Some

For those seeking to live in the most sustainable way, there now is an afterlife too.

A Dutch intrepid inventor is now “growing” coffins by putting mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, together with hemp fiber in a special mold that, in a week, turns into what could basically be compared to the looks of an unpainted Egyptian sarcophagus.

And while traditional wooden coffins come from trees that can take decades to grow and years to break down in the soil, the mushroom versions biodegrades and delivers the remains to nature in barely a month and a half.

In our 21st century, when the individual spirit can increasingly thrive way beyond the strictures of yore, death and funerals are all so often still hemmed in by tradition that may fall far short of the vision of the deceased or their loved ones.

“We all have different cultures and different ways of wanting to be buried in the world. But I do think there’s a lot of us, a huge percentage of us, that would like it differently. And it’s been very old school the same way for 50 or 100 years,” said Shawn Harris, a U.S. investor in the Loop Biotech company that produces the coffins.

With climate consciousness and a special care of nature a focal point in ever more lives, Loop Biotech says it has the answer for those wanting to live the full circle of life — and then some — as close to what they always believed in.

Bob Hendrikx, the 29-year-old founder bedecked in a “I am compost” T-shirt at a recent presentation, said that he had researched nature a great deal “especially mushrooms. And I learned that they are the biggest recyclers on the planet. So I thought, hey, why can we not be part of the cycle of life? And then decided to grow a mushroom-based coffin.” Moss can be draped within the coffins for the burial ceremonies.

And for those preferring cremation, there is also an urn they grow which can be buried with a sapling sticking out. So when the urn is broken down, the ashes can help give life to the tree.

“Instead of: ‘we die, we end up in the soil and that’s it,’ Now there is a new story : we can enrich life after death and you can continue to thrive as a new plant or tree,” Hendrikx said in an interview. “It brings a new narrative in which we can be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

The coffins cost 995 euros (more than $1,000) each, and the price for an urn is 196.80 euros ($212).

To put nature at the heart of such funerals, Loop Biotech is partnering with Natuurbegraven Nederland — Nature Burials Netherlands — which uses six special habitats were remains can be embedded in protected parks.

Currently, Loop Biotech has a capacity to “grow” 500 coffins or urns a month, and are shipping across Europe. Hendrikx said they have caught on in the Nordics.

“It’s the Northern European countries where there is more consciousness about the environment and also where there’s autumn,” he said. “So they know and understand the mushroom, how it works, how it’s part of the ecosystem.”

Latest in Ukraine: Russia Targets Kyiv with Drones, Missiles

New developments:  

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will investigate U.S. allegations that a Russian ship had collected weapons from a naval base near Cape Town last year, his office said Sunday in a statement. South Africa denies the allegations which have caused a diplomatic spat among the U.S., South Africa and Russia and called into question South Africa's non-aligned position on the conflict in Ukraine.    
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed Sunday that senior Kremlin officials banned reporting about him on state media. The leader of the Wagner mercenary forces cautioned that such a ban would lead to a backlash from the Russian people within months. The Kremlin did not respond to his comments.    
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the promise by some Western countries to provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine is an "unacceptable escalation," and accused the West of what he called an attempt to "weaken Russia," Russian state-controlled media reports. "It's playing with fire," Lavrov said, as quoted by Russia's foreign ministry.   

Ukrainian officials said Monday the country’s air defenses shot down more than 40 targets as Russia carried out a second consecutive overnight attack on Kyiv. 

“Another difficult night for the capital,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram.  He said there were no reported injuries from the attack. 

Serhiy Popko, head of the city’s military administration, said Russian forces used a combination of cruise missiles and Shahed drones to target Kyiv for the 15th time in May. 

The consistent aerial attacks have come ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive that Ukrainian leaders have said will seek to reclaim territory Russia seized since it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine early last year. 

Ukraine’s air force said in total, air defenses shot down 29 of 35 drones and 37 of 40 missiles Russia launched overnight. 

The attacks came a day after what officials called Russia’s “most massive attack” on Kyiv that involved 54 drones. 

Iran sanctions 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy introduced a bill Sunday proposing 50 years of additional sanctions against Iran.    

Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said the bill was a response to what Kyiv says is Tehran’s weapons supplies to Moscow. The draft includes a complete ban on trade with Iran, on investments, and transferring technologies. If the bill becomes law, Ukraine will forbid Iranian transit across the Ukrainian territory as well as use of its airspace and freeze Iranian assets.       

Kyiv and its allies say Iran has been supplying Russia with arms, including hundreds of drones, since Moscow invaded Ukraine last year. Tehran rejects the allegations.      

Initially, Iran denied supplying Shahed drones to Russia but later said it had provided a small number before the conflict began.    

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

Ukraine’s Kostyuk Booed at French Open, Refused Handshake With Belarus Player

Unable to sleep the night before her first-round match at the French Open against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the Grand Slam tournament’s No. 2 seed, Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine checked her phone at 5 a.m. Sunday and saw disturbing news back home in Kyiv.

At least one person was killed when the capital of Kostyuk’s country was subjected to the largest drone attack by Russia since the start of its war, launched with an invasion assisted by Belarus in February 2022.

“It’s something I cannot describe, probably. I try to put my emotions aside any time I go out on court. I think I’m better than before, and I don’t think it affects me as much on a daily basis, but yeah, it’s just — I don’t know,” Kostyuk said, shaking her head. “There is not much to say, really. It’s just part of my life.”

That, then, is why Kostyuk has decided she will not exchange the usual post-match pleasantries with opponents from Russia or Belarus. And that is why she avoided a handshake — avoided any eye contact, even — after losing to Australian Open champion Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2 on Day 1 at Roland Garros.

What surprised the 20-year-old, 39th-ranked Kostyuk on Sunday was the reaction she received from the spectators in Court Philippe-Chatrier; They loudly booed and derisively whistled at her as she walked directly over to acknowledge the chair umpire instead of congratulating the winner after the lopsided result. The negative response grew louder as she gathered her belongings and walked off the court toward the locker room.

“I have to say,” Kostyuk said, “I didn’t expect it. … People should be, honestly, embarrassed.”

Kostyuk is based now in Monaco, and her mother and sister are there, too, but her father and grandfather are still in Kyiv. Perhaps the fans on hand at the clay-court event’s main stadium were unaware of the backstory and figured Kostyuk simply failed to follow usual tennis etiquette.

Initially, Sabalenka — who had approached the net as if anticipating some sort of exchange with Kostyuk — thought the noise was directed at her.

“At first, I thought they were booing me,” Sabalenka said. “I was a little confused, and I was, like, ‘OK, what should I do?’”

Sabalenka tried to ask the chair umpire what was going on. She looked up at her entourage in the stands, too. Then she realized that while she is aware Kostyuk and other Ukrainian tennis players have been declining to greet opponents from Russia or Belarus after a match, the spectators might not have known — and so responded in a way Sabalenka didn’t think was deserved.

“They saw it,” she surmised, “as disrespect (for) me.”

All in all, if the tennis itself was not particularly memorable, the whole scene, including the lack of the customary pre-match photo of the players following the coin toss, became the most noteworthy development on Day 1 in Paris.

Sabalenka called Sunday “emotionally tough” — because of mundane, tennis-related reasons, such as the nerves that come with a first-round match, but more significantly because of the unusual circumstances involving the war.

“You’re playing against (a) Ukrainian, and you never know what’s going to happen. You never know how people will — will they support you or not?” explained Sabalenka, who went down an early break and trailed 3-2 before reeling off six consecutive games with powerful first-strike hitting. “I was worried, like, people will be against me, and I don’t like to play when people (are) so much against me.”

A journalist from Ukraine asked Sabalenka what her message to the world is about the war, particularly in this context: She can overtake Iga Swiatek at No. 1 in the rankings based on results over the next two weeks and, therefore, serves as a role model.

“Nobody in this world, Russian athletes or Belarusian athletes, support the war. Nobody. How can we support the war? Nobody — normal people — will never support it. Why (do) we have to go loud and say that things? This is like: ‘One plus one (is) two.’ Of course, we don’t support war,” Sabalenka said. “If it could affect anyhow the war, if it could like stop it, we would do it. But unfortunately, it’s not in our hands.”

When a portion of those comments was read to Kostyuk by a reporter, she responded in calm, measured tones that she doesn’t get why Sabalenka does not come out and say that “she personally doesn’t support this war.”

Kostyuk also rejected the notion that players from Russia or Belarus could be in a tough spot upon returning to those countries if they were to speak out about what is happening in Ukraine.

“I don’t know why it’s a difficult situation,” Kostyuk said with a chuckle.

“I don’t know what other players are afraid of,” she said. “I go back to Ukraine, where I can die any second from drones or missiles or whatever it is.”