Boris Johnson Says Putin Threatened Missile Strike in Call 

In a new BBC documentary, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Britain with a missile strike. Johnson says the conversation took place during a phone call in the run up to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.

Johnson recalled the Russian leader saying, “It would only take a minute… Jolly.”

Johnson, however, said he did not take the threat seriously in their “extraordinary” call. “He was just playing along with my attempts to get him to negotiate,” Johnson said of Putin.

“It’s a lie,” a Kremlin spokesman told reporters about Johnson’s interpretation of the telephone conversation. “There were no threats of missiles.”

Johnson also told the BBC he tried to dissuade Putin from war, telling him Ukraine would not be joining NATO for the “foreseeable future.” Johnson also said he told the Russian leader that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to Western sanctions.

Johnson, who stepped down last year in the wake of a series of scandals, sought to position London as Ukraine’s top ally in the West.

While in office he visited Kyiv several times and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy frequently.

Russians Gone From Ukraine Village, Fear and Hardship Remain

When night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil that aid groups gave her into a jar and seals it with a wick-fitted lid. A flick of a match, and the make-do candle is lit.

“This is our electricity,” Trofimenko, 68, says.

It has been over 11 weeks since Ukrainian forces wrested back her village in Kherson province from Russian occupation. But liberation has not diminished the hardship for residents of Kalynivske, both those returning home and the ones who never left. In the peak of winter, the remote area not far from an active front line has no power or water. The sounds of war are never far.

Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River, which bisects the province, but remain in control of the eastern side. A near constant barrage of fire from only a few kilometers away, and the danger of leftover mines leaving many Ukrainians too scared to venture out, has rendered normalcy an elusive dream and cast a pall over their military’s strategic victory.

Still, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombardment than as displaced people elsewhere in their country. Staying is an act of defiance against the relentless Russian attacks intended to make the area unlivable, they say.

“This territory is liberated. I feel it,” Trofimenko says. “Before, there were no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people evacuated, some people hid in their houses.”

“When you go out on the street now, you see happy people walking around,” she says.

The Associated Press followed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy into the village on Saturday, when blankets, solar lamps, jerrycans, bed linens and warm clothes were delivered to the local warehouse of a distribution center.

Russian forces captured Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of the nearly 1,000 residents in Kalynivske remained in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too fragile or ill to leave, others did not have the means to escape.

Gennadiy Shaposhnikov lies on the sofa in a dark room, plates piled up beside him.

The 83-year old’s advanced cancer is so painful it is hard for him to speak. When a mortar destroyed the back of his house, neighbors rushed to his rescue and patched it up with tarps. They still come by every day, to make sure he is fed and taken care of.

“Visit again, soon,” is all he can muster to say to them.

Oleksandra Hryhoryna, 75, moved in with a neighbor when the missiles devastated her small house near the village center. Her frail figure steps over the spent shells and shrapnel that cover her front yard. She struggles up the pile of bricks, what remains of the stairs, leading to her front door.

She came to the aid distribution center pulling her bicycle and left with a bag full of tinned food, her main source of sustenance these days.

But it’s the lack of electricity that is the major problem, Hryhoryna explains. “We are using handmade candles with oil and survive that way,” she says.

The main road that leads to her home is littered with the remnants of the war, an eerie museum of what was and what everyone here hopes will never return. Destroyed Russian tanks rust away in the fields. Cylindrical anti-tank missiles gleam, embedded in grassy patches. Occasionally, there is the tail end of a cluster munition lodged into the earth.

Bright red signs emblazoned with a skull warn passersby not to get too close.

The Russians left empty ammunition boxes, trenches and tarp-covered tents during their rapid retreat. A jacket and, some kilometers away, men’s underwear hangs on the bare branches. And with the Russians waging ongoing attacks to win back the lost ground in Kherson, it is sometimes hard for terrorized residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.

“I’m very afraid,” says Trofimenko. “Even sometimes I’m screaming. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried about us getting shelled again and for (the fighting) to start again. This is the most terrible thing that exists.”

The deprivation suffered in the village is mirrored all over Kherson, from the provincial capital of the same name to the constellation of villages divided by tracts of farmland that surround it. Ukrainian troops reclaimed the territory west of the Dnieper River in November after a major counteroffensive led to a Russian troop withdrawal, hailed as one of the greatest Ukrainian victories of the war that’s now in its 12th month..

The U.N. ramped up assistance, supporting 133,000 individuals in Kherson with cash assistance, and 150,000 with food. Many villagers in Kalynivske say the food aid is the only reason they have something to eat.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the people who are there are the most vulnerable. It’s mainly the elderly, many who have a certain kind of disability, people who could not leave the area, and are really reliant on aid organizations and local authorities who are working around the clock,” says Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The shelling is constant.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reports near daily incidents of shelling in Kherson city and surrounding villages, including rocket, artillery and mortar attacks. Most fall closer to the river banks nearer to the front line, but, that doesn’t mean those living further away feel any safer. On Friday, a missile fell in the village of Kochubeivka, north of Kalynivske, killing one person.

“Kherson managed to resume most of the essential services, but the problem is the hostilities keep creating challenges to ensure they are sustained,” Abreu says. “Since December, it’s getting worse and worse. The number of attacks and hostilities there is only increasing.”

Without electricity, there is no means to pump piped drinking water. Many line up to fetch well water, but a lot is needed to perform daily functions, residents complain.

To keep warm, many forage around the village for firewood, a task that presents danger post-occupation.

Everyone in Kalynivske knows the story of Nina Zvarech. She went looking for firewood in the nearby forest and was killed when she stepped on a mine.

Her body lay there for over a month because her relatives were too afraid to go and find her.

Friends Mourn Foreign Volunteers Killed Helping Civilians in Ukraine

Friends and volunteers gathered Sunday at Kyiv’s St. Sophia’s Cathedral to say goodbye to Andrew Bagshaw, a New Zealand scientist who was killed in Ukraine with another volunteer while they were trying to evacuate people from a front-line town.

Bagshaw, 48, a dual New Zealand-British citizen, and British volunteer Christopher Parry, 28, went missing this month while heading to the town of Soledar, in the eastern Donetsk region, where heavy fighting was taking place.

Volunteers spoke of their memories of Bagshaw and read tributes from his family.

Nikolletta Stoyanova, a friend in Ukraine, shared memories of his bravery.

“Even if no one wanted to go to Soledar, they can do that. Because if he understood that someone needs help, they need to do this help for these people,” Stoyanova said, speaking in English.

Bagshaw’s father, Phil, told reporters in New Zealand that his son wanted to do something to help.

“He was a very intelligent man, and a very independent thinker,” he said. “And he thought a long time about the situation in Ukraine, and he believed it to be immoral. He felt the only thing he could do of a constructive nature was to go there and help people.”

Ukrainian police said Jan. 9 that they lost contact with Bagshaw and Parry after the two headed for Soledar. Their bodies were later recovered. A Ukrainian official reported Wednesday that the defending forces made an organized retreat from the salt-mining town.

In a Jan. 24 statement, Parry’s family said he was “drawn to Ukraine in March in its darkest hour.” They said he’d “helped those most in need, saving over 400 lives plus many abandoned animals.”

Friends said the men’s bodies would be handed over to relatives in the U.K.

In the south of Ukraine, Russian forces Sunday heavily shelled the city of Kherson, killing three people and wounding six others, the regional administration said. It said the shelling damaged a hospital, school, bus station, post office, bank and residential buildings.

Among those reported injured were two women in the hospital at the time: a nurse and a cafeteria worker. Russian forces retreated across the Dnieper River from Kherson in November, but still hold much of the province of the same name.

On Sunday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine and its Western allies of war crimes in connection with the shelling of two hospitals in Russian-held parts of Ukraine.

Russian officials said 14 people died Saturday when a hospital in the eastern Luhansk province settlement of Novoaidar was struck. They said shells also fell on the territory of a hospital in Nova Kakhovka, a Russian-occupied city in Kherson province where a strategically vital bridge across the lower reaches of the Dnieper is located.

“The deliberate shelling of active civilian medical facilities and the targeted killing of civilians are grave war crimes of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The lack of reaction from the United States and other NATO countries to this, yet another monstrous trampling of international humanitarian law by Kyiv, once again confirms their direct involvement in the conflict and involvement in the crimes being committed.”

Russian forces have shelled hundreds of hospitals and other medical facilities in Ukraine since the war began, reducing more than 100 of them to rubble, according to the Ukrainian Health Ministry.

Russian state TV aired footage of what it said was the damaged hospital in Novoaidar. It said rockets hit the pediatric department of the two-story building.

“There are no military factories here. There are no military vehicles, no tanks. Who did you shoot at?” Olga Ryasnaya said in an interview on Russian TV, which identified her as a pediatric nurse.

Luhansk province, where Novoaidar is located, is almost entirely under the control of Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. Russian and separatist officials alleged the hospital was deliberately targeted. The movements of journalists are restricted in areas of Ukraine under Russian control.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukrainian forces were likely increasing strikes on Russian positions deep inside Luhansk province, closer to the Russian border, in an effort “to disrupt Russian logistics and ground lines of communication.” It said the strikes could be part of preparations for a future counteroffensive.

In another development, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday that Ukrainian tank crews have arrived in the U.K. to begin training on the Challenger 2 battle tank. The U.K. government has said it would send 14 of the tanks to Ukraine, which also was promised advanced battle tanks from the U.S., Germany and other European allies.

Germany Won’t Send Fighter Jets to Ukraine, Says Scholz

Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated Sunday that Germany will not send fighter jets to Ukraine, as Kyiv steps up calls for more advanced weapons from the West to help repel Russia’s invasion.

Scholz only just agreed on Wednesday to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to allow other European countries to send theirs, after weeks of intense debate and mounting pressure from allies.

“I can only advise against entering into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapons systems,” Scholz said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

“If, as soon as a decision (on tanks) has been made, the next debate starts in Germany, that doesn’t come across as serious and undermines citizens’ confidence in government decisions.”

Scholz’s decision to green-light the tanks was accompanied by a U.S. announcement that it would send 31 of its Abrams tanks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Berlin and Washington for the move, seen as a breakthrough in efforts to support the war-torn country.

But Zelenskyy immediately stressed that Ukraine needed more heavy weapons from NATO allies to fend off Russian troops, including fighter jets and long-range missiles.

Scholz in the interview warned against raising “the risk of escalation,” with Moscow already sharply condemning the tank pledges.

“There is no war between NATO and Russia. We will not allow such an escalation,” he said.

The chancellor added that it was “necessary” to continue speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The last phone call between the leaders was in early December.

“I will talk to Putin by phone again,” Scholz said. “But, of course, it’s also clear that as long as Russia continues to wage war with unabated aggression, the current situation will not change.”

Environmentalists Protest Airport Project Near Albanian Bird Sanctuary

Environmentalists protested over the weekend at the building site of a new airport in Albania’s south meant to boost tourism but which they say will endanger sanctuaries for some 200 bird species including flamingos and pelicans.

The picturesque Vjose-Narte lagoon close to Albania’s Adriatic seaside is a crucial stop for flocks of birds in their annual migration between Europe and Africa.

The government is building the airport just 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the Adriatic coast with pristine sandy beaches which the poor Balkan nation hopes will attract more foreign tourists.

“For those who think this airport will bring development, in reality this airport will bring only destruction,” tourist guide Alben Kola told Reuters on Saturday as he and more than 100 environmentalists and ornithologists held their protest.

The European Union, which Albania aims to join one day, has said the airport project, launched in December 2021 and due for completion at the end of 2024, was undertaken in contradiction with national and international laws on protecting biodiversity.

The committee of the Bern Convention that works to protect European wildlife and natural habitats has said Albania should suspend the construction of the airport.

“This shows that this nature wealth belongs not only to us but to the whole of Europe and foreign governments are doing more to protect it than we do,” said Joni Vorpsi, from the NGO Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) that has been fighting for years to protect the lagoon.

In November an Albanian court rejected a lawsuit filed by local NGOs against the construction of the airport but they plan to appeal.

Vorpsi said the airport, which would serve the southern coastal city of Vlore, not only would destroy avian habitats but raise the risk of aircraft collisions with big birds.

The Swiss firm leading the project, Mabetex, has said the take-off and landing paths of planes there would not affect bird routes. It said the runway would be 3.5 kilometres from the bird sanctuary and 5 km away from major bird migration routes.

French PM Says No Dice on Pension Age as Strikes Loom 

France’s prime minister on Sunday ruled out backtracking on a plan to raise the retirement age as unions prepared for another day of mass protests against the contested reform.

An increase in the minimum retirement age to 64 from the current 62 is part of a flagship reform package pushed by President Emmanuel Macron to ensure the future financing of France’s pensions system.

After union protests against the change brought out over a million people into the streets on January 19, the government signaled there was wiggle room on some measures, including the number of contributing years needed to qualify for a full pension, special deals for people who started working very young, and provisions for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children.

But the headline age limit of 64 was not up for discussion, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Sunday.

“This is now non-negotiable,” she told the FranceInfo broadcaster.

While unions have welcomed the government’s readiness for negotiation on parts of the plan, they say the proposed 64-year rule has to go.

Calling the reform “unfair” France’s eight major unions, in a rare show of unity, said they hoped to “mobilize even more massively” on Tuesday, their next scheduled protest day, than at the showing earlier this month.

‘Even more people’

“It’s looking like there will be even more people”, said Celine Verzeletti, member of the hard left union CGT’s confederation leadership.

Pointing to opinion polls, Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said that “the people disagree strongly with the project, and that view is gaining ground.”

It would be “a mistake” for the government to ignore the mobilization, he warned.

Unions and the government both see Tuesday’s protests as a major test.

Some 200 protests are being organized countrywide, with a big march planned for Paris, culminating in a demonstration outside the National Assembly where parliamentary commissions are to start examining the draft law on Monday.

The leftwing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s allies are short of an absolute majority in parliament and will need votes from conservatives to approve the pensions plan.

The government has the option of forcing the bill through without a vote under special constitutional powers, but at the risk of triggering a vote of no confidence, and possibly new parliamentary elections.

In addition to protest marches, unions have called for widespread strike action for Tuesday, with railway services and public transport expected to be heavily affected.

Stoppages are also expected in schools and administrations, with some local authorities having already announced closures of public spaces such as sports stadiums.

Some unions have called for further strike action in February, including at commercial ports, refineries and power stations.

Some observers said the unions are playing for high stakes, and any slackening of support Tuesday could be fatal for their momentum.

“They have placed the bar high,” said Dominique Andolfatto, a professor of political science. “They can’t afford any missteps.”

 UK Prime Minister Fires Conservative Party Chair

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has fired the chairman of the Conservative Party.

Sunak removed Nadhim Zahawi on Sunday, following an investigation into Zahawi’s personal taxes.

The prime minister said in a letter to Zahawi that “it is clear that there has been a serious breach of the Ministerial Code.”

Laurie Magnus, the independent adviser who conducted the investigation into Zahawi’s taxes, said in a letter to Sunak that Zahawi showed “insufficient regard” for the requirement “to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behaviour.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.  

Burkina Rally Celebrate Word That French Troops Will Leave

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Saturday in support of the ruling junta, days after France confirmed its special forces there would withdraw, according to an AFP journalist at the rally.

Packing Nation Square in central Ouagadougou, protesters held signs bearing slogans including “Down with imperialism,” “Down with French policy in Africa” and “Forward for Burkina’s sovereignty.”

“We do not want any more foreign military bases on our soil,” Lazare Yameogo, spokesperson for the Inter-African Revolutionary Movement told the crowd. “We want respect and a win-win cooperation.

“We will remain on the lookout until Burkina Faso is liberated from Western imperialism,” he added.

Former colonial power France has special forces based in Ouagadougou, but its presence has come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows.

Paris confirmed this week that the troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadi insurgency, would leave within a month.

Anger within the military at the government’s failure to stem the insurgency, which has raged since 2015, fueled two coups in Burkina Faso last year.

Violence by insurgents linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group has killed thousands of people and forced around 2 million more to flee their homes.

Junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traore was acting for the West African state’s sovereignty and “an army powerful enough to fight jihadists,” said Alassane Kouanda, head of an association backing the planned transition to civilian rule.

Some observers say the Burkinabe government’s request for France to withdraw its troops is reminiscent of the ideals of former president, left-wing anti-colonial hero Thomas Sankara.

A coalition of organizations supporting Sankara’s ideas welcomed “the complete liberation of our country from the yokes of Francafrique, imperialism and deadly capitalism,” using a term to describe French influence in its former African colonies.

Mahamadou Sawadogo, leader of the Burkina-Russia association, said during Saturday’s protest that there were “other opportunities for cooperation” in the fight against jihadis, notably from Moscow.

Some protesters on Saturday held Russian flags and giant posters of the leaders of Mali and Guinea, West African neighbors that, like Burkina Faso, are ruled by military juntas following coups.

Monique Yeli Kam, a former presidential candidate and a major figure in the anti-France movement, told AFP Burkina Faso’s turn toward Moscow and the Russian paramilitary group Wagner was “also a form of sovereignty.”

“The old powers tend to treat us like children by saying we don’t know how to choose,” but Burkina is now independent and able to act freely “according to our interests,” she said.

Turning away from France in favor of Russia in the anti-jihadi fight has not convinced all Burkinabe citizens.

“We demanded the French soldiers’ departure. Now that it’s done, we must not let in other imperialists,” said Ibrahim Sanou, a 28-year-old shop worker. “It’s up to us to take full responsibility because the fight for true independence in Burkina Faso begins now.”

Civil servant Desire Sanou added: “We must be ready to hold out to free the country from these hordes of terrorists. We don’t even need Wagner or other forces.”

Paris Rallies Demand Freedom for Europeans in Iran

Families and friends of a growing number of Europeans imprisoned in Iran gathered in Paris Saturday to call for their release. 

The French government this week denounced the plight of seven French citizens held in Iranian prisons, calling the detentions “unjustifiable and unacceptable.” 

Iran has detained a number of foreigners and dual nationals over the years, accusing them of espionage or other state security offenses. Many were convicted and sentenced after secretive trials in which rights groups said they were denied due process. 

Supporters and family members of four of the current French prisoners — Louis Arnaud, Fariba Adelkhah, Benjamin Briere and Cecile Kohler — held a solemn, silent rally for their release Saturday on a plaza overlooking the Seine River. 

The supporters said all were wrongly accused and some were in fragile physical or psychological health, or placed in isolation. “They are deprived of the most basic rights,” unable to contact loved ones, the supporters said in a statement. 

Arnaud was arrested September 28 as he was traveling in Iran as a tourist, according to France’s Foreign Ministry. Another prisoner, Bernard Phelan, was detained last year and is in need of medical care that is not being provided, according to the ministry. 

Earlier Saturday, dozens of people gathered in a park beneath the Eiffel Tower to show support for detained Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele. Vandecasteele, who worked for many years for aid group Doctors of the World, was arrested in Tehran in February 2022. Doctors of the World said the conditions of his detention were putting Vandecasteele’s life at risk. 

Most of the European prisoners were detained before the protests that have shaken Iran since September over the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. Concerns about the detentions have grown as Iranian authorities have cracked down on the protesters. 

Russian Strike Kills 3; Zelenskyy Seeks Long-Range Missiles

A Russian missile strike on a city in the eastern region of Donetsk killed at least three people Saturday as Ukrainian forces engaged Russian troops in ferocious battles in several hot spots in the east, where Moscow has been pressing its offensive with increased urgency amid Western pledges of modern tank deliveries for Kyiv. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used the occasion to press Western partners to supply his nation with long-range precision missiles, known as ATACMS, to reduce Russia’s ability to target cities.   

“It would be possible to stop this Russian terror if we could source the appropriate missiles for our military forces,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Saturday. 

Earlier, Zelenskyy had said major battles were underway for Vuhledar and Bakhmut, a town that has been virtually razed by repeated Russian artillery bombardments. 

In the Donetsk city of Kostyantynivka, a Russian strike on a residential neighborhood killed three people and wounded at least 14 others, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram. 

Factory worker Iryna Maltseva, 42, said she was watching television when the explosion violently rattled her living room.   

“I opened my eyes, and everything was blown out,” she said. “I was covered in blood. Mom was sitting in the bedroom, also covered in blood.” 

Kyrylenko said four apartment buildings and a hotel had been damaged and that rescuers and police officials were at the site to “carefully document yet another crime by the Russian occupiers.” 

“Kostyantynivka is a city relatively far from the front line, but still, it constantly suffers from enemy attacks. Everyone who remains in the city exposes themselves to mortal danger,” Kyrylenko said, according to The Associated Press. “The Russians target civilians because they are not able to fight the Ukrainian army.” 

Earlier Saturday, Kyrylenko said four people had been killed and at least seven wounded by Russian strikes in the last 24 hours. 

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its daily report early Saturday that Russian troops continued to press on with a multipronged offensive in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

“The enemy continues to conduct offensive actions in the Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Novopavlivka directions,” the General Staff said. “In the Kupyansk, Lyman, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson directions, the enemy is on the defensive.” 

Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy told local media that “there is fierce combat” in Vuhledar. 

“For many months, the military of the Russian Federation … has been trying to achieve significant success there,” he said.   

Vuhledar, a town with a pre-invasion population of around 15,000 people, has strategic significance as a communications node in southern Donetsk. 

Ukraine’s National Security Council chief, Oleksiy Danilov, told RFE/RL that Moscow was preparing for a new offensive on February 24, the anniversary of the Russian invasion.   

“Now they are preparing for maximum activation … and they believe that by the anniversary they should have some achievements,” Danilov said. “There is no secret that they are preparing for a new wave by February 24, as they themselves say.” 

Ukraine’s Western allies continue to pledge military equipment and aid to shore up Kyiv’s defenses.   

U.S. National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said Washington anticipates an “intense period of fighting in the coming months,” adding that there is “no sign” of the war stopping. 

Zelenskyy said Friday that Ukraine needs up to 500 tanks.   

“We need 300 or 500 tanks now. We need tanks to protect our territory, our land. We need armored vehicles to protect our people, that’s all,” he said in an interview with Sky News. 

So far, a total of 321 heavy tanks have been promised to Ukraine by several countries, Ukraine’s ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko, said on BFM television on January 27.   

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also reassured Ukraine of the bloc’s unconditional support.    

Speaking Saturday in Duesseldorf, Germany, von der Leyen said, “We stand by Ukraine’s side without any ifs and buts.”   

Von der Leyen and her fellow EU commissioners plan an EU-Ukraine summit on February 3.   

The Kremlin has reacted with fury to the latest gestures of Western solidarity with Ukraine and said it saw the promised delivery of advanced tanks as evidence of escalating “direct involvement” of the United States and NATO in Russia’s war of aggression, something both deny.   

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

Sweden Tells Citizens: Avoid Crowds in Turkey After Quran Burning

Sweden’s foreign ministry Saturday warned Swedes in Turkey to avoid crowds and demonstrations following protests there over the burning of the Quran by a far-right politician in Stockholm last week.

Turkey has suspended talks with Sweden and Finland on their applications to join NATO after the protest at which Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

Paludan’s actions have led to demonstrations in several Muslim countries as well as in Turkey.

“Swedes in Turkey are asked to stay updated on the development of events and to avoid large gatherings and demonstrations,” the foreign ministry said on its advice page for Swedes abroad.

“Continued demonstrations can be expected outside the embassy in Ankara and the consulate general in Istanbul in the coming days.”

After Paludan’s protest, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said he supported freedom of speech.

“But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act,” Kristersson said on Twitter.

Sweden and Finland applied last year to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

They need support from all 30 members of the Alliance. Turkey has said Sweden in particular must first take a clearer stance against what it sees as terrorists, mainly Kurdish militants and a group it blames for a 2016 coup attempt, in order for it to back NATO membership for the two Nordic countries. 

Italy, Libya Sign $8B Gas Deal as PM Meloni Visits Tripoli

Italy’s prime minister held talks in Libya Saturday with officials from the country’s west-based government focusing on energy and migration, top issues for Italy and the European Union. During the visit, the two countries’ oil companies signed a gas deal worth $8 billion — the largest single investment in Libya’s energy sector in more than two decades.

Libya is the second North African country that Premier Giorgia Meloni, three months in office, visited this week. She is seeking to secure new supplies of natural gas to replace Russian energy amid Moscow’s war on Ukraine. She previously visited Algeria, Italy’s main supplier of natural gas, where she signed several memorandums.

Meloni landed at the Mitiga airport, the only functioning airport in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, amid tight security, accompanied by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, her office said. She met with Abdel Hamid Dbeibah, who heads one of Libya’s rival administrations, and held talks with Mohamed Younis Menfi, who chairs Libya’s ceremonial presidential council.

At a roundtable with Dbeibah, Meloni repeated her remarks from Algeria, saying that while Italy wants to increase its profile in the region, it doesn’t seek a “predatory” role but wants to help African nations “grow and become richer.”

During the visit, Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s state-run energy company, ENI, signed an $8 billion deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields. NOC’s chairman Farhat Bengdara also signed.

The agreement involves developing two offshore fields in Block NC-41, north of Libya, and ENI said they would start pumping gas in 2026, and estimated reaching 750 million cubic feet per day, the Italian firm said in a statement. 

Meloni, who attended the signing ceremony, called the deal “significant and historic” and said it will help Europe securing energy sources.

“Libya is clearly for us a strategic economic partner,” Meloni said.

Agreement could compound tension

Saturday’s deal is likely to deepen the rift between the rival Libyan administrations in the east and west, like previous oil and military deals between Tripoli and Ankara. It has already exposed fractions within the Dbeibah’s government.

Oil Minister Mohamed Aoun, who did not attend the signing, criticized the deal on a local TV, saying it was “illegal” and claiming that NOC did not consult with his ministry.

Bengdara did not address Aoun’s criticism during his conference but said those who reject the deal could challenge it in court.

ENI has continued to operate in Libya despite ongoing security issues, producing gas mostly for the domestic market. Last year, Libya delivered just 2.63 billion cubic meters to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline — well below the annual levels of 8 billion cubic meters before Libya’s decline in 2011.

Instability increased domestic demand and underinvestment has hampered Libya’s gas deliveries abroad, according to Matteo Villa of the Milan-based ISPI think tank. New deals “are important in terms of image,” Villa said.

Also, because of Moscow’s war on Ukraine, Italy has moved to reduce dependence on Russian natural gas. Last year, Italy reduced imports by two-thirds, to 11 billion cubic meters.

Meloni is the top European official to visit oil-rich Libya since the country failed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2021. That prompted Libya’s east-based parliament to appoint a rival government after Dbeibah refused to step down.

Libya has for most of the past decade been ruled by rival governments — one based in the country’s east, and the other in Tripoli, in the west. The country descended into chaos following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising turned civil war that toppled and later killed longtime autocratic ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Piantedosi’s presence during the visit signaled that migration was a top concern in Meloni’s trip. The interior minister has been spearheading the government’s crackdown on charity rescue boats operating off Libya, initially denying access to ports and more recently, assigning ports in northern Italy, requiring days of navigation.

Patrol boats for migrants

At a joint news conference with Meloni later Saturday, Dbeibah said that Italy would provide five “fully equipped” boats to Libya’s coast guard to help stem the flow of migrants to the European shores.

Alarm Phone, an activist network that helps bring rescuers to distressed migrants at sea, criticized Italy’s move to provide the patrol boats.

“While this is nothing new, it is worrying,” the group said in an email to The Associated Press. “This will inevitably lead to more people being abducted at sea and forced to return to places they had sought to escape from.”

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said that Meloni needs to show “some kind of a step-up, compared to her predecessor in terms of migration and energy policy in Libya.”

But “it will be difficult to improve upon Rome’s existing western Libya tactics, which have been chugging along,” he said.

The North African nation has also become a hub for African and Middle Eastern migrants seeking to travel to Europe. Italy receives tens of thousands every year.

Ex-General Wins Czech Presidential Election

ormer army chief Petr Pavel won the Czech Republic’s presidential election on Saturday after a campaign featuring strong backing for NATO and the European Union and support for aid to Ukraine.

Pavel, a 61-year-old retired general running for office for the first time, was set to win more than 58% of the vote with nearly all voting districts having reported, defeating billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis, a dominant but polarizing force in Czech politics for a decade.

Pavel, who had campaigned as an independent and gained the backing of the center-right government, conveyed a message of unity and calm in society when addressing his election headquarters at a Prague concert venue Saturday as results showed he had won.  

“Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won,” Pavel told supporters and journalists. “I am convinced that these values are shared by the vast majority of us, it is worth us trying make them part of our lives and also return them to the Prague Castle and our politics.”

Czech presidents do not have many day-to-day duties, but they pick prime ministers and central bank heads, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.

Pavel will take office in March, replacing outgoing Milos Zeman, a divisive figure himself over his two terms in office over the past decade who had backed Babis as his successor.

Zeman had pushed for closer ties with Beijing and with Moscow until Russia invaded Ukraine, and Pavel’s election will mark a sharp shift.

Babis, 68, a combative business magnate who heads the biggest opposition party in parliament, had attacked Pavel as the government’s candidate. He sought to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government to do more to help them.

Babis and Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on his victory Saturday.

Clear outcome

The result of the election will only become official when published in a legal journal Tuesday, but the outcome of the poll was already clear Saturday.

Pavel has backed keeping the central European country of 10.5 million firmly in the European Union and NATO military alliance— and supports the government’s continued aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year.

He is a backer of adopting the euro, a topic that successive governments have kept on the back burner, and supports gay marriage and other progressive policies.

A career soldier, Pavel joined the army in Communist times, was decorated with a French military cross for valor during peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and later rose to lead the Czech general staff and become chairman of NATO’s military committee for three years before retiring in 2018.

“I voted for Mr. Pavel because he is a decent and reasonable man and I think that the young generation has a future with him,” said Abdulai Diop, 60, after voting in Prague Saturday.

Babis had campaigned on fears of the war in Ukraine spreading. He offered to broker peace talks while suggesting Pavel, as a former soldier, could drag the Czechs into a war, a claim Pavel rejected.

UN Weekly Roundup: Jan. 21-27, 2023 

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this week, as seen from the United Nations’ perch.

UN deputy chief says Taliban’s desire for recognition is bargaining chip on rights

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said Wednesday that the international community’s best leverage to persuade the Taliban to reverse restrictions on Afghan women’s rights is the group’s desire for international recognition. She told reporters that the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are discussing holding a conference in March in the region on women in the Muslim world. Mohammed led a high-level U.N. delegation to Afghanistan this past week.

Nuclear watchdog warns Iran has enough material for several nuclear bombs

International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Rafael Grossi warned Tuesday that Iran has accumulated “enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons.” Grossi told the European Parliament’s security and defense subcommittee in Brussels that his agency is no longer monitoring Iran’s nuclear program because the regime has disconnected 27 of the agency’s cameras installed at its declared nuclear sites. Grossi said he plans to travel to Tehran, Iran, next month.

No progress on international force for Haiti

The U.N. and the government of Haiti reiterated their appeal Tuesday for an international force to quickly deploy to the island nation to help subdue an unprecedented level of gang violence that has terrorized the population. In early October, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres backed a request from the Haitian government to send a force to address escalating insecurity and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

2023 global economic forecast looks gloomy

U.N. economists forecast a gloomy and uncertain outlook this year, with the global economy projected to grow at a very sluggish rate. The 2023 World Economic Situation and Prospects report, issued Wednesday, says a series of severe shocks have reduced global economic output to its lowest level in years, leaving many economies at risk of falling into recession. In good news, the authors say inflation appears to have peaked in some of the more advanced economies, and East and South Asia emerged as the report’s bright spots for growth.

Myanmar poppy production grows since military coup

A report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says Myanmar’s farmers are flocking back to opium poppy cultivation amid rising prices for the contraband crop and an economic decline that is wiping out jobs, reversing nearly a decade of poppy decreases. Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan, and the main source for most of East and Southeast Asia. UNODC says many people have resorted to poppy cultivation because jobs and investment have dried up following the military coup two years ago.

In brief

— U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is on a mission to Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya this week to advance joint priorities following December’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Her tour is focused on regional security issues, food insecurity, humanitarian issues, and supporting African efforts to mitigate climate change, a senior administration official said.

— This week, World Food Program Chief David Beasley is in Syria, where he raised the alarm on unprecedented levels of hunger. He said 12 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from, while an additional 2.9 million are at risk of sliding into hunger. Overall, due to conflict, COVID-19 and an economic crisis, 70% of the population might soon be unable to feed their families.

— The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a report released Friday that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that Syria’s Air Forces perpetrated a chemical weapons attack on April 7, 2018, in Douma, Syria. The OPCW said at least one helicopter of the Syrian “Tiger Forces” elite unit dropped two yellow cylinders containing toxic chlorine gas on two apartment buildings in a residential area of Douma, killing at least 43 people and affecting dozens more. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric condemned the use of chemical weapons and said, “it is imperative that those who use chemical weapons are identified and held accountable.”

Quote of note

“You have to remember that what happened before the Taliban came back was a huge amount of hope, and an expression of that hope with many women who got an education, who were in decision-making roles, who were leaders in Afghanistan, and now that’s dashed. And when that happens, the anxiety and the level of fear amongst women and their future is huge, it’s palpable.”

— U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to reporters on the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban​

What we are watching next week

February 1 marks two years since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, leading to protests and a crackdown on human rights. Since the coup, leaders and thousands of pro-democracy protesters have died or been jailed, and the humanitarian situation has worsened.

UK: Russia Likely Undercounts New Year’s Day Strike Casualties

The British Defense Ministry said Saturday that Russia “highly likely” suffered more than 300 casualties in a New Year’s Day strike on its troops in Ukraine at Makiivka near Donetsk City.

The ministry said it believes that “the majority were likely killed or missing, rather than wounded.”

The ministry noted that while its Russian counterpart “took the rare step of publicly acknowledging” that it had suffered casualties, Russia claimed only 89 had been killed.

The British ministry said the Russian ministry “likely assessed” it could not avoid commenting on the strike because Russian commanders had come under widespread criticism following the incident.

The British ministry said in its intelligence update posted on Twitter that the difference between Russia’s number of casualties and the likely true numbers “highlights the pervasive presence of disinformation in Russian public announcements.”

The disinformation, the ministry said, is a result of a combination of deliberate lying authorized by senior leaders and “the communication of inaccurate reports by more junior officials, keen to downplay their failings in Russia’s ‘blame and sack’ culture.”

Ukraine said Russian missile strikes killed at least 10 Ukrainian civilians Friday as fierce fighting continued in the east of the country. Twenty others were wounded.

Ukrainian officials say most of the casualties from the missile strikes occurred in towns in the country’s east and south that are near Russian artillery units. They follow Russian missile attacks that went farther into Ukrainian territory Thursday, killing 11 people.

Kyiv said its troops were involved in fierce fighting Friday with Russian troops in the eastern town of Vuhledar, part of the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Friday that fighting was heavy in Donetsk and that Russian forces were not just trying to achieve military gains but were also seeking to destroy towns and villages.

Earlier Friday, the European Union’s top general said that Russia is taking the war in Ukraine into a “different stage,” launching indiscriminate attacks against civilians and cities as a reaction to recent decisions by NATO allies to send advanced armaments to Ukraine in support of its war effort.

Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo, European External Action Service Secretary-General Stefano Sannino told reporters Russia is no longer focused on military targets but is making indiscriminate attacks on cities and people.

“I think that this latest development in terms of armed supply is just an evolution of the situation and of the way Russia started moving the war into a different stage,” he said.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has moved from a concept of [a] special [military] operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West,” Sannino said.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians in Ukraine.

Sannino’s comments came as Germany and the United States announced this week they will send advanced battle tanks to Ukraine, hoping to match the firepower Russia has on the ground.

The EU general said the new supplies from the West are not an escalation but rather an effort to give Ukraine a chance to defend itself. He said the developments have forced Putin to change his initial narrative, in which he described the invasion as a “special operation” to free Ukraine from a Nazi regime.

“Now we are speaking about a war with NATO and the West. Different story,” Sannino said.

Poland pledged Friday to send more tanks to Ukraine, promising an additional 60 tanks on top of 14 German-made Leopard 2 tanks it had already agreed to send.

Zelenskyy responded on Twitter, “Thank you … Poland for these important decisions to deliver to Ukraine 60 Polish tanks — 30 of which are the famous PT-91 Twardy, along with 14 Leopards.”

Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Friday the supply of Western tanks to Ukraine would not help Kyiv’s military prospects but would rather “bring the countries of the West to a new level of confrontation with our country and our people.”

On Thursday, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude for the growing number of countries pledging advanced weaponry, including tanks, while at the same time pressing the need to hasten delivery of the promised weapons systems.

Zelenskyy said the only way to stop “this Russian aggression” is with “adequate weapons.” He emphasized, “The terrorist state will not understand anything else.”

The Ukrainian president also credited Western supplies for added protection from Thursday’s missile attacks. “Today, thanks to the air defense systems provided to Ukraine and the professionalism of our warriors, we managed to shoot down most of the Russian missiles and Shaheds,” he said in his address.

“Unfortunately, it is difficult to provide 100% protection with air defense alone. Especially when terrorists use ballistic missiles,” he added.

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

Ukraine: Latest Russian Missile Strikes Kill at Least 10

Ukraine said Russian missile strikes killed at least 10 Ukrainian civilians Friday as fierce fighting continued in the east of the country. Twenty others were wounded.

Ukrainian officials say most of the casualties from the missile strikes occurred in towns in the country’s east and south that are near Russian artillery units. They follow Russian missile attacks that went farther into Ukrainian territory Thursday, killing 11 people.

Kyiv said its troops were involved in fierce fighting Friday with Russian troops in the eastern town of Vuhledar, part of the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Friday that fighting was heavy in Donetsk and that Russian forces were not just trying to achieve military gains but were also seeking to destroy towns and villages.

Earlier Friday, the European Union’s top general said that Russia is taking the war in Ukraine into a “different stage,” launching indiscriminate attacks against civilians and cities as a reaction to recent decisions by NATO allies to send advanced armaments to Ukraine in support of its war effort.

Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo, European External Action Service Secretary-General Stefano Sannino told reporters Russia is no longer focused on military targets but is making indiscriminate attacks on cities and people.

“I think that this latest development in terms of armed supply is just an evolution of the situation and of the way Russia started moving the war into a different stage,” he said.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has moved from a concept of [a] special [military] operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West,” Sannino noted.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians in Ukraine.

Sannino’s comments came as Germany and the United States announced this week they will send advanced battle tanks to Ukraine, hoping to match the firepower Russia has on the ground.

The EU general said the new supplies from the West are not an escalation but rather an effort to give Ukraine a chance to defend itself. He said the developments have forced Putin to change his initial narrative, in which he described the invasion as a “special operation” to free Ukraine from a Nazi regime.

“Now we are speaking about a war with NATO and the West. Different story,” Sannino said.

Poland pledged Friday to send more tanks to Ukraine, promising an additional 60 tanks on top of 14 German-made Leopard 2 tanks it had already agreed to send.

Zelenskyy responded on Twitter, “Thank you … Poland for these important decisions to deliver to Ukraine 60 Polish tanks — 30 of which are the famous PT-91 Twardy, along with 14 Leopards.”

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said Friday the supply of Western tanks to Ukraine would not help Kyiv’s military prospects but would rather “bring the countries of the West to a new level of confrontation with our country and our people.”

On Thursday, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude for the growing number of countries pledging advanced weaponry, including tanks, while at the same time pressing the need to hasten delivery of the promised weapons systems.

Zelenskyy said the only way to stop “this Russian aggression” is with “adequate weapons.” He emphasized, “The terrorist state will not understand anything else.”

The Ukrainian president also credited Western supplies for added protection from Thursday’s missile attacks. “Today, thanks to the air defense systems provided to Ukraine and the professionalism of our warriors, we managed to shoot down most of the Russian missiles and Shaheds,” he said in his address.

“Unfortunately, it is difficult to provide 100% protection with air defense alone. Especially when terrorists use ballistic missiles,” he added.

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

US Weighs Turkey, Greece Jet Sales Amid NATO Expansion

As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to secure NATO enlargement with the accession of Sweden and Finland, it is dealing with requests by Turkey and Greece to purchase fighter jets, the latter being less controversial and more likely to be approved.

Analysts speaking to VOA said the outcome of the proposed sale of F-16s to Ankara and F-35s to Athens would impact the air defense capabilities of the two neighbors and the power balance in the region.

Turkey requested to buy 40 F-16 Block 70 fighter jets, the most advanced of their kind, and nearly 80 modernization kits from the United States to upgrade its aging fleet of other F-16s. Greece sent a request to buy 20 F-35s, plus 20 more down the road. Turkey was removed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program almost three years ago because of its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.

Both proposed sales require approval by Congress. Some U.S. senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, oppose the F-16 sale to Turkey, citing several concerns about Turkey’s relations with Russia and its persistent blockage of NATO expansion. The Greek request for the F-35s is seen as more likely to be approved.

Some experts say a scenario where Turkey is not able to get the F-16s but Greece is approved for the F-35s could give Athens the upper hand in terms of aircraft technology in the long run.

“If Turkey cannot get the F-16s and modernize its aircraft as opposed to Greece having the F-35s, upgraded F-16s as well as the Rafale jets it purchased from France, this brings the risk of tilting the air superiority in favor of Greece,” Sinan Ulgen told VOA. Ulgen is the chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy research group and a visiting fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

He argued that if the process gets stalled, Turkey might investigate other options available in the NATO system, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon developed by a consortium of defense companies in the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain. He added that Ankara is also working on the production of its own national combat aircraft.

Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, said the United States has been successful in terms of managing the balance between the two NATO allies despite their many spats over the years and would not let things get to a point where that balance could significantly shift. Townsend is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Transatlantic Security Program.

Sweetening the deal

U.S. experts previously speaking to VOA suggested that a deal on F-16s for Turkey could be dependent on whether Ankara drops its objection to Sweden and Finland’s joint NATO membership bid.

Townsend argued that the administration’s position on F-16s may be a bargaining chip if it signals it’s prepared to work with Congress and use its leverage to get the sale approved — provided that Turkey gives them assurances on NATO’s enlargement.

Turkey had been involved in trilateral talks with Finland and Sweden to try to persuade them to do more to address its security concerns, including the repatriation of individuals whom it considers to be affiliated with terrorist groups.

Angered by a recent protest in Stockholm outside the Turkish Embassy in which far-right anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan burned the Quran, Turkey postponed the next round of those talks indefinitely.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, at a joint news conference with his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic, accused Sweden on Thursday of not taking serious steps to address Turkey’s concerns, saying “a trilateral meeting would not make sense” under the circumstances.

Window of opportunity

U.S. and NATO officials hope to resolve the differences by July, in time for NATO’s summit. Before that happens, Turkey will hold elections in mid-May. Some analysts predict that the election could be the nation’s most consequential vote in generations.

Experts speaking to VOA said it would be beneficial if a solution could be found in the two months between Turkey’s elections and the NATO summit.

“We are used to nations extracting concessions within the alliance over various policy issues,” Townsend told VOA. “Every nation has its national agenda. But they eventually will compromise. Once that election goes by, if Turkey continues to obstruct, I think it’ll be a lot of harsh words behind closed doors.”

Ulgen said he expected the issue to be resolved after the elections, saying Turkey would not want to be blamed for the stall.

In an opinion piece for Bloomberg earlier this week, former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis wrote that the alliance needs Turkey to continue being an active and positive member and needs to have Finland and Sweden on board.

“No one wants to have to choose between them,” he wrote, putting the onus on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ensure that that doesn’t have to happen.

Townsend agreed, adding that Turkey should not be moving the goal posts or stretching out the decision to gain more concessions after the elections.

“Otherwise, we are in some uncharted territory,” he warned.