EU Slaps New Sanctions on Iran, Mulls More Against Russia

European Union foreign ministers slapped a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, discussed a possible 10th sanctions package against Russia, and agreed to more than $540 million in new military spending for Ukraine.

The new military funding for Ukraine brings to nearly $12 billion the total European Union and member state military spending for Kyiv since the country’s war began nearly a year ago.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also said EU oil sanctions against Moscow are working.

“Russia needs 70 percent in order to balance its budget — so it’s losing $40 per barrel,” Borrell said. “It is a big hit on Russian financial stability.”

But European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels failed to make progress on one key sticking point: getting Germany to formally greenlight EU member states’ sending its Leopard tanks to Ukraine, which Kyiv says are vital to its war effort.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has suggested Germany will not oppose countries like Poland sending the tanks — but there has been no announcement beyond that.

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said his country will send Kyiv the tanks anyway.

“Certainly, we are going to send these tanks,” Rau said. “We will be [in] touch with the German government about it. But regardless of the decision of other countries, we are more than determined, as we have promised the Ukrainian side to send the tanks.”

The EU is discussing another round of sanctions against Moscow, but Hungary, whose leader has had close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, signaled its opposition.

The bloc also agreed to a fourth round of sanctions against Iran over its widespread crackdown against anti-government protests. EU travel bans and asset freezes target 37 entities and individuals, including members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

But the Europeans stopped short of sanctioning the Revolutionary Guard as a whole — for now. Britain and the United States have also agreed to new sanctions against Iran.

Turkey’s President Says No Support for Sweden’s NATO Bid

Turkey’s president cast serious doubt on NATO’s expansion Monday after warning Sweden not to expect support for its bid for membership into the military alliance following weekend protests in Stockholm by an anti-Islam activist and pro-Kurdish groups. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed Rasmus Paludan’s Quran-burning protest on Saturday, saying it was an insult to everyone, especially to Muslims. He was particularly incensed at Swedish authorities for allowing the demonstration to take place outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm under “the protection” of security forces. 

“It is clear that those who allowed such vileness to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their NATO membership application,” Erdogan said in his first comments regarding the weekend protests, saying Sweden must have calculated the consequences of permitting Paludan’s demonstration. 

The burning of Islam’s holy book angered people across the political spectrum in Turkey, just as Sweden and Finland appeared on the cusp of NATO membership after dropping their longstanding policies of military nonalignment following Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin now stands to benefit as the potential enlargement of the world’s most powerful military alliance appears to be stymied. 

Erdogan also criticized Sweden for allowing pro-Kurdish protests where demonstrators waved flags of various Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the European Union and the United States, but its symbols aren’t banned in Sweden. 

“So you will let terror organizations run wild on your avenues and streets and then expect our support for getting into NATO. That’s not happening,” Erdogan said, referring to Sweden and Finland’s accession bids for the military alliance. He said if Sweden won’t show respect to NATO-member Turkey or Muslims, then “they won’t see any support from us on the NATO issue.” 

A joint memorandum signed by Turkey, Sweden and Finland in June averted a Turkish veto of their membership bid at NATO’s Madrid summit where they confirmed the PKK as a terror group and committed to prevent its activities. Continued protests are infuriating Ankara who has said Sweden must address Turkey’s security concerns and demands for the Turkish parliament to ratify their NATO request. 

“If they love terror organization members and enemies of Islam so much, we recommend that they refer their countries’ security to them,” he added. Several hundred pro-Kurdish protesters walked over a photo of Erdogan on Saturday and an Erdogan effigy was hung from a lamppost in a previous protest. Turkish officials canceled bilateral meetings in response. 

Swedish officials have stressed that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Swedish Constitution and gives people extensive rights to express their views publicly, though incitement to violence or hate speech isn’t allowed. Demonstrators must apply to police for a permit for a public gathering. Police can deny such permits only on exceptional grounds, such as risks to public safety. Top Swedish officials have said freedom of expression is crucial to democracy while criticizing Paludan’s actions as disrespectful and ones they disagree with. 

Anti-Islam activist Paludan, who holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship, established far-right parties in both countries that have failed to win any seats in national, regional or municipal elections. In last year’s parliamentary election in Sweden, his party received just 156 votes nationwide. His burning of the Quran sparked counterprotests in Turkey over the weekend, where demonstrators burned his photograph and a Swedish flag. 

Former FBI Agent Arrested on Russia Sanctions Violations

A former senior FBI agent who once investigated Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska has been arrested for receiving secret payments from the Russian billionaire in return for investigating a rival, the Justice Department announced Monday. 

Charles F. McGonigal, who headed counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York field office, and Sergey Shestakov, a former Soviet diplomat and an associate of Deripaska, were arrested Saturday on sanctions violations and money laundering charges.

According to court documents, McGonigal and Shestakov in 2021 investigated an unnamed rival Russian oligarch in return for concealed payments from Deripaska, violating U.S. sanctions imposed on Deripaska in 2018. 

In an earlier scheme in 2019, McGonigal and Shestakov allegedly unsuccessfully tried to have the sanctions against Deripaska lifted, according to court documents.

Before retiring from the FBI in 2018, McGonigal, a veteran special agent, led and participated in investigations of Russian oligarchs, including Deripaska, according to the Justice Department. 

Shestakov was a Soviet and Russian diplomat before becoming a U.S. citizen and a Russian interpreter for U.S. courts and government offices, according to the Justice Department.

According to court documents, the duo tried to conceal Deripaska’s involvement in the investigation of his rival by using shell companies, not naming the businessman in communications and forging signatures.

In September, Deripaska, an aluminum magnate with suspected ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and three associates were indicted on charges of evading U.S. sanctions and obstruction of justice. 

Deripaska remains at large. 

France’s Baguette Becomes Another Ukraine War Casualty

The fallout of the war in Ukraine is hitting even France’s iconic baguette, which was recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. On Monday, French bakers took to the streets of Paris to protest soaring energy and other prices they say are imperiling their trade.

Denis Durand begins his workdays at 3:30 a.m. to bake the crusty baguettes and croissants that are the staple of French breakfasts. His organic boulangerie, or bakery, in eastern Paris has been a family business for six decades. But today, it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet.

He says bakers like himself — known as “boulangers” in France — are seeing their profits disappearing. They get a lot of promises from the government, he says — but nothing concrete.

Like many others, Durand is feeling the effects of soaring prices since the war in Ukraine, and the European Union’s embargo on Russian energy. 

He says his monthly energy costs have doubled — other bakers have seen their energy bills rise fivefold or more. Prices of flour, sugar, eggs and the packaging for his breads and pastries are also sharply up. 

Authorities have announced support for the country’s 33,000 artisanal bakeries and other small and medium-sized businesses. 

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire also called on energy providers to renegotiate contracts for boulangers in cases where energy prices have exploded.

But many of these artisanal bakers say it’s not enough. And on Monday, Durand joined fellow boulangers in Paris to demonstrate against the soaring costs. 

The protest was organized by the Collective for the Survival of Boulangers and Artisans. Nice-based boulanger Frederic Roy, who co-founded the group, says the government warns if the government doesn’t do more to reduce their costs, many risk going out of business.

But not all baker’s groups are on board. Some unions did not join Monday’s protest.

Franck Thomasse, who heads a Paris-area bakers’ syndicate, says negotiating with the government for more support is more effective than protesting.

But baker Durand disagrees. He’s trying to cut corners — but says it’s not enough. Boulangers like himself are the lifeblood of France, he says — but today, they feel like they’re the last ones served.  

 

Why Macron, French Unions at Odds Over Pensions 

The French government is presenting a bill on Monday that foresees broad changes to the pension system that will notably push back the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.

Unions aren’t happy, and more than 1 million people took to the streets last week to reject the measure. More strikes and protest action are planned Jan. 31, and probably beyond.

What does President Emmanuel Macron’s government want to change and why, and what does it mean for workers, and why are so many people opposed?

The pension system

All French retirees receive a state pension. The system’s funding is based on the redistribution of a specific tax from those who are working to those who are retired.

The system is projected to dive into deficit in the coming decade amid France’s aging population.

The average French pension this year stands at 1,400 euros per month ($1,500 per month) once taxes are deducted.

The system is complex, with differences depending on professions, and the private and public sectors. Some are allowed to take early retirement, including the military, police officers and people with physically demanding jobs.

The government plan

The government says the changes will make the system financially sustainable.

Workers who were born in 1961 and were supposed to retire this year will need to work three additional months. Those born in 1968 and after will need to be at least 64 and have worked for 43 years to be entitled to a full pension.

Those who don’t fulfill the conditions, like many women who interrupted their careers to raise children or those who undertook a long period of study and started working late, will have to wait until the age of 67 to get a full pension — unchanged from the current system.

Those who started working from the age of 14 to 19 will be allowed to get early retirement, as will people with major health issues.

The government argues that the changes will also allow for the increase of the minimum pension by 100 euros, to reach about 1,200 euros for a full career.

Opposition to the planned changes 

Opinion polls show a majority of French are opposed to the measure. Thursday’s protests, the first public show of resistance toward the measures, gathered larger crowds than in past years.

France’s eight main workers’ unions are calling on the government to abandon the age measure altogether. It is the first time since 2010 that all the unions joined forces against a planned reform.

Opponents argue that there are other ways to get financing for the pensions — for instance via a tax on the wealthy or an increase in payroll contributions paid by employers.

Most opposition parties, including the hard-left France Unbowed, the Greens and the Socialist party, as well as the far-right National Rally, vowed to wage a harsh battle against the bill at parliament.

What’s next?

The changes are included in a budget amendment bill to be formally presented at a Cabinet meeting on Monday. They will start being debated at parliament on Feb. 6.

Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year, yet still has the most important group at the National Assembly, where it has hopes of being able to join up with the conservative The Republicans party to pass the measure.

Otherwise, the government may use a special power to force the law through parliament without a vote — but such a move will come at the price of heavy criticism.

The bill will then need to be voted on by the Senate, where The Republicans have the majority.

Pavel Leads Ahead of Czech Vote; Opponent Plays on War Fears 

Retired general and former NATO official Petr Pavel led billionaire ex-prime minister Andrej Babis by a nearly 18-point margin ahead of a Czech presidential election run-off vote, according to the final Ipsos agency poll published on Monday.

Czech presidents do not wield much daily powers but they appoint prime ministers, central bank governors, and have a limited role in foreign policy. They also shape public debate and can pressure governments on policies.

Pavel was polling at 58.8% to 41.2% for Babis in the survey conducted on Jan. 20-22. The two candidates meet in the second round of the election on Jan. 27-28.

Pavel, an independent backed by the center-right government, has projected a clear pro-Western policy stance and support for Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression.

Babis, 68, has tried to label Pavel as a threat to peace, and presented himself over the past week since the first election round as a force against war.

His campaign posters declare “I will not drag Czechia into a war” and “I am a diplomat. Not a soldier”.

Pavel has dismissed the suggestions as nonsense.

Czech media reported widespread anti-Pavel messaging on disinformation websites and chain emails.

Babis, who heads the largest opposition political party, won the backing of retiring President Milos Zeman as well as figures from the extreme fringes of the political scene, including the pro-Russian former ruling Communist Party. Zeman had favored closer ties with China and Russia, until Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

In a television debate on Sunday night, Babis caused a stir by saying he would refuse to send troops to defend NATO allies Poland and the Baltics in case they were attacked.

He later backtracked on those comments, saying he would respect NATO’s mutual defense commitments.

The Ipsos poll confirmed a message in two surveys over the weekend where Pavel also led by a wide margin.

Pavel, 61, was a soldier since the communist era, but rose in the ranks after the 1989 democratic “Velvet Revolution”. He served in special forces and military diplomacy roles and led the army general staff in 2012-2015.

In the subsequent three years, he headed NATO’s military committee of national army chiefs, the principal military advisory body to the alliance’s secretary-general.

Monday was the deadline for polling ahead of a blackout period. One more poll was expected on Monday afternoon.

Senior UK Conservatives Under Fire Over Tax, Finances

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak opened an investigation Monday into allegations that the chairman of the governing Conservative Party settled a multimillion-dollar unpaid tax bill while he was in charge of the country’s Treasury.

It’s one of multiple stories about secret loans and unpaid taxes causing discomfort for Sunak, who has faced scrutiny of his own personal wealth and family tax arrangements.

Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi has acknowledged a dispute with tax authorities over shares in YouGov, a polling company he co-founded. But he said that the error was “careless and not deliberate.”

“So that I could focus on my life as a public servant, I chose to settle the matter and pay what they said was due, which was the right thing to do,” he said in a statement.

The BBC and other British media reported that the tax bill, including a fine, came to almost 5 million pounds ($6.2 million). They say the bill was settled when Zahawi was Treasury chief between July and September, during the final weeks of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tenure.

Sunak said Monday he had asked his standards advisor, Laurie Magnus, “to investigate the matter fully and establish all the facts and provide advice to me on Nadhim Zahawi’s compliance with the ministerial code.”

“Integrity and accountability is really important to me and clearly in this case there are questions that need answering,” he said.

Sunak took office as U.K. leader in October, promising “integrity, professionalism and accountability” after a tumultuous few years that saw Johnson ousted by multiple scandals and his successor Liz Truss toppled after her policies rocked the U.K. economy.

Johnson’s financial arrangements are back in the headlines after media revealed that in 2021, Canadian businessman Sam Blyth, a distant cousin, acted as guarantor for an 800,000-pound ($993,000) loan to the then prime minister.

The Sunday Times reported that banker and Conservative donor Richard Sharp helped broker the deal. Weeks later, Sharp was appointed chairman of the BBC on the recommendation of the government.

Sharp told the Sunday Times he had “simply connected” people and there was no conflict of interest. He said Monday that he had called an internal investigation “to ensure that all the appropriate guidelines have been followed.”

The stories are fuel for opponents who accuse Sunak – a former investment banker who is married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire – of leading a government of the wealthy that is out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people.

Last year, it was revealed his wife Akshata Murthy didn’t pay U.K. tax on her overseas income, including 11.5 million pounds a year in dividends from Infosys, the Indian IT company founded by her father. The practice was legal, but it looked insensitive at best at a time when Sunak – who was then the U.K. Treasury chief — was raising taxes for millions of Britons.

U.K. prime ministers aren’t required to publish their tax returns, but Sunak has promised that he will do so in the interests of transparency.

In a further embarrassment, Sunak was fined by police on Friday for taking off his seat belt to film a social media video in the back of a moving car.

Erdogan: Turkey Elections to Be Held May 14

Turkey’s president has announced May 14 as the date for the country’s next parliamentary and presidential elections.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who plans to seek reelection, made the announcement during a Saturday youth conference in northwestern Bursa province. A video of the event was released Sunday.

“I thank God that we are destined to share our path with you, our valued youth, who will vote for the first time in the elections that will be held on May 14,” said Erdogan, who had hinted at the date last week.

He said in Bursa he would make the formal call on March 10, after which Turkey’s Supreme Election Council would prepare for the elections.

If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote, a second round of voting would be held May 28.

Erdogan, who has been in office since 2003 — first as prime minister and as president since 2014 — faces his most difficult election yet as Turkey’s troubled economy struggles with soaring inflation.

A six-party opposition alliance has yet to put forth a presidential candidate. A pro-Kurdish party that is the third largest in parliament has so far been excluded from the alliance and said it might field its own candidate.

Erdogan, 68, introduced a system of governance in 2018 that abolished the office of the prime minister and concentrated most powers in the hands of the president. The office of the president was largely a ceremonial post before then. Under the new system, presidential and parliamentary elections are held on the same day.

The opposition has blamed Turkey’s economic downturn and an erosion of civil rights and freedoms on Erdogan, saying the revised government system amounts to “one-man rule.” The presidential system was narrowly approved in a 2017 referendum and took effect after the 2018 elections.

This year’s elections were supposed to take place in June, but ruling party members said that month would coincide with summer and religious holidays, prompting an earlier date.

Pressure Mounting on Germany to Deliver Leopard 2 Tanks to Ukraine

Germany’s foreign minister said Sunday that Berlin wouldn’t object if Poland decides to send German-made tanks to Ukraine to aid it in its fight against Russian invaders.

Annalena Baerbock told French TV channel LCI that, while Poland has not requested permission to export its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, she said if the request were made, “we would not stand in the way.”

Ukraine has long sought heavy tanks to combat Russian forces using more modern tanks than those in Ukraine’s arsenal.  Until Baerbock’s comments Sunday, Germany has been reticent to send its own Leopard 2s to Ukraine or approve their transfer by countries who purchased the tanks from Germany.

Earlier Sunday, French and German officials held a summit in France to discuss additional weapons for Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not say whether Germany would agree to provide Ukraine with a delivery of battle tanks, but the Reuters news agency cited him as saying such decisions would be made in coordination with allies including the United States.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he does not rule out the possibility of sending Leclerc tanks to Ukraine. He cautioned, however, that sending tanks must not endanger France’s security or escalate the war between Ukraine and Russia.

British Foreign Minister James Cleverly said Sunday in an interview with Sky News he would like to see the Ukrainians “equipped with things like the Leopard 2.” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the newly installed Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” that the United States should offer its heavy Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine to encourage Germany to send its Leopard 2s as well.

“Just one Abrams tank would be enough to prompt allies, notably Germany, to unlock their own tank inventories for the fight against Russia,” he said.

US also urged to provide tanks

Democratic Senator Chris Coons also told ABC that it was time to set aside U.S. concerns about delivering the Abrams.

“I respect that our military leaders think the Abrams is too sophisticated, too expensive a platform to be as useful as the Leopards, but we need to continue to work with our close allies and move forward in lock step.”

Their comments Sunday echoed reactions of European officials Saturday against Germany’s indecision about sending its heavy tanks to Ukraine. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called on Berlin to “provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine now.”

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called for “many more” weapons to be sent to Ukraine and faster. Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau urged “action now.”

“Ukrainian blood is shed for real,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries,” he said.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Saturday expressed frustration with the slow pace of the military support the country’s allies are providing. “Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians. Think faster.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops will start training to use Leopard 2 battle tanks on Polish soil, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told VOA’s Ukrainian service Friday. Reznikov described the development as a breakthrough.

“I am optimistic regarding this because the first step has been made. We will start training programs for our tank crews on Leopard 2s,” Reznikov said.

Ukrainian corruption

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised Sunday he would continue to root out corruption in Ukraine’s government, Reuters reported.

The pledge came amid allegations of senior-level corruption, including a report of dubious practices in military procurement despite officials promoting national unity to confront the invasion, Reuters said.

“I want this to be clear: there will be no return to what used to be in the past, to the way various people close to state institutions or those who spent their entire lives chasing a chair used to live,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.

Transparency International in 2021 ranked Ukraine’s corruption at 122 out of 180 countries.

Russia claims new advances

Russia’s defense ministry said for the second straight day Sunday that its forces were improving their positions in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region.

“During offensive operations in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, units of the Eastern Military District took up more advantageous ground and positions,” the defense ministry said.

It claimed to have inflicted casualties and destroyed equipment including Ukrainian fighting vehicles, howitzers and two U.S.-made HIMARS rockets. The Reuters news agency was not able to independently verify Russia’s battlefield accounts. Ukraine Saturday said Russia’s claims of progress in Zaporizhzhia were exaggerated.

Return of bodies

Saturday, the Wagner Group, the private Russian paramilitary group, announced through its RIA FAN website that it plans to send the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed during fighting in the captured town of Soledar to Ukraine-held territory.

The RIA FAN website, part of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media holdings, quoted a Wagner commander as saying the mercenary company would send the bodies from Soledar to Ukrainian-held territory in four or five convoys totaling about 20 trucks.

Saturday’s report did not say how many bodies would be returned to Ukrainian authorities but claimed Ukraine’s forces had suffered heavy losses in Soledar.

It said Prigozhin had made clear that soldiers’ bodies should be returned to Ukraine in a “dignified” way but did not provide further details.

The White House has imposed new sanctions on Prigozhin’s paramilitary organization.

In a separate letter addressed to National Security Council coordinator John Kirby, Prigozhin’s press service asked, “Dear Mr. Kirby, could you please clarify what crime was committed by PMC Wagner?”

Kirby called Wagner “a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses.”

VOA’s Ruslan Petrychka contributed to this story. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

Greek Police Search Ryanair Passenger Plane Over Bomb Threat 

Police on Sunday were searching a Ryanair RYA.I passenger plane that landed at Athens International Airport for any suspicious items after receiving an alert for a bomb threat, police officials said.

The pilot of the Boeing 737 aircraft, with about 190 passengers and crew on board, had earlier alerted authorities over a possible explosive device on board, one of the officials said.

The plane, which was flying from Katowice in Poland to Greece arrived in Athens escorted by two fighter jets at 5:35 p.m. (1535 GMT). Firefighting engines were on standby as it landed.

Police were later searching passengers as they were disembarking and their luggage was lined up outside the aircraft.

Swedish Prime Minister Condemns Quran Burning

Sweden’s prime minister has condemned as “deeply disrespectful” the weekend burning of a Quran in Stockholm, which has raised tensions with Turkey as the Nordic country courts Ankara over its NATO bid.

Far-right politician Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Muslim holy book on Saturday in front of Turkey’s embassy in the Swedish capital.

Furious that Paludan had been permitted by Swedish police to carry out the protest, Ankara canceled a visit by Sweden’s defense minister and summoned Stockholm’s ambassador.

Late on Saturday, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson tweeted: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act.” 

“I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today.”

Paludan’s demonstration has further damaged relations as Stockholm tries to convince NATO member Turkey to approve Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance.

Sweden’s bid has been stalled amid Ankara’s demands that Stockholm hand over Kurdish activists and prevent rallies attacking Turkey’s leadership.

Many Muslim countries said they were outraged by the burning of the Quran on Saturday.

Morocco said it was “astonished” the authorities had allowed it to take place “in front of the Swedish forces of order.”

Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also condemned it, as did the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Jakarta said, “the act of blasphemy against the holy book has hurt and tarnished religious tolerance,” adding that “freedom of expression must be exercised in a responsible manner.”

Dozens of protesters gathered late Saturday in front of the Swedish consulate in Istanbul, where they burned a Swedish flag and called on Turkey to sever diplomatic ties with Stockholm.

Paludan, a Swedish-Danish activist who has already been convicted for racist abuse, provoked rioting in Sweden last year when he went on a tour of the country and publicly burned copies of the Quran. 

France, Germany Renew Alliance Strained Amid War in Ukraine 

France and Germany are seeking to overcome differences laid bare by Russia’s war in Ukraine while celebrating their decadeslong friendship with a day of ceremonies and talks Sunday on Europe’s security, energy and other challenges.

Germany’s entire Cabinet is in Paris for joint meetings, and 300 lawmakers from both countries are coming together at the Sorbonne University to mark 60 years since a landmark treaty sealed a bond between the longtime enemies that underpins today’s European Union.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will oversee two rounds of talks at the Elysee Palace, focusing first on energy and economic policy, and then on defense.

“Let us use our inseparable friendship … to shape the present and future of our continent, together with our European partners,” Scholz said at the ceremony at the Sorbonne.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the European peace project is at a “turning point,” he said.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s imperialism will not win. … We will not allow Europe to revert to a time when violence replaced politics and our continent was torn apart by hatred and national rivalries.”

Macron added: “Our unfailing support for the Ukrainian people will continue in every field.”

Both countries have contributed significant weaponry to Ukraine, but Ukraine is asking for tanks and more powerful arms as Russia’s war drags on.

The war has exposed differences in strategy between the two countries, notably in European talks on how to deal with the resulting energy crisis and punishing inflation, as well as over future military investments.

Macron called for “a new energy model” in the EU based on diversifying supplies and encouraging carbon-free energy production.

Aside from Ukraine, a top priority for the meeting is working out Europe’s response to the subsidies for U.S. electric carmakers and other businesses in the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, according to senior French and German officials.

France wants Europe to counter what it considers an unfair move by Washington. Paris is pushing for the EU to relax rules on state subsidies in order to accelerate their allocation, simplify the bloc’s support for investments and create an EU sovereign fund to boost green industries. Berlin, however, warns against protectionism.

French-German government meetings are usually held at least once a year to coordinate policies. The last one was held in May 2021 via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sunday’s gathering is the first in-person meeting since 2019. It was originally scheduled for October, but was delayed amid divergences on issues including energy, defense and the economy.

The officials are marking the 60th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty signed by French President and wartime anti-Nazi resistance leader Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on Jan. 22, 1963.

Berlin and Paris have a decadeslong history of bilateral irritants and European disputes that coexist with the countries’ friendship and cooperation.

France and Germany have been described as the “engine” of the EU. They have always found compromises even in difficult terrain since they co-founded, with four other countries, the forerunner of the EU in 1957.

“The Franco-German engine is a compromise machine: well-oiled, but also loud at times and marked by hard work,” Scholz said.

India Blocks ‘Hostile’ BBC Documentary on PM Modi

India’s government said it has blocked videos and tweets sharing links to a BBC documentary about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role during deadly 2002 sectarian riots, calling it “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage.”

The British broadcaster’s program alleges that the Hindu nationalist Modi, premier of Gujarat state at the time, ordered police to turn a blind eye to the orgy of violence there that left at least 1,000 people dead, most of them minority Muslims.

Kanchan Gupta, an adviser to the government, tweeted Saturday that the Indian government used emergency powers under IT rules to block the documentary and its clips from being shared on social media.

“Videos sharing @BBCWorld hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage, disguised as ‘documentary,’ on @YouTube and tweets sharing links to the BBC documentary have been blocked under India’s sovereign laws and rules,” he said.

Orders were also issued to Twitter to block over 50 tweets with links to YouTube videos.

Both YouTube and Twitter have complied with the instructions, Gupta said.

Neither firm was available for comment Sunday.

Several tweets with clips of the documentary, India: The Modi Question, which has not been aired in the world’s largest democracy, were still available Sunday.

The 2002 riots in Gujarat began after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a fire on a train. Thirty-one Muslims were convicted of criminal conspiracy and murder over that incident.

The BBC documentary cited a previously classified British foreign ministry report quoting unnamed sources saying that Modi met senior police officers and “ordered them not to intervene” in the anti-Muslim violence by right-wing Hindu groups that followed.

The violence was “politically motivated” and the aim “was to purge Muslims from Hindu areas,” the foreign ministry report said.

The “systematic campaign of violence has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and was impossible “without the climate of impunity created by the state Government … Narendra Modi is directly responsible,” it concluded.

Travel ban

Modi, who ran Gujarat from 2001 until his election as prime minister in 2014, was briefly subject to a travel ban by the United States over the violence.

A special investigative team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court to probe the role of Modi and others in the violence said in 2012 it did not find any evidence to prosecute the then chief minister.

Gupta said multiple ministries had examined the documentary and “found it casting aspersions on the authority and credibility of Supreme Court of India, sowing divisions among various Indian communities, and making unsubstantiated allegations.”

“Accordingly, @BBCWorld’s vile propaganda was found to be undermining the sovereignty and integrity of India, and having the potential to adversely impact India’s friendly relations with foreign countries as also public order within the country,” he said.

UK: Russia Will ‘Likely Struggle’ to Staff, Equip Planned Force Expansion

The British Defense Ministry said Sunday that Russia “highly likely assesses that an enhanced conventional military threat will endure for many years beyond the current Ukraine war.” In the intelligence update posted on Twitter Sunday, the ministry said, Russia would “highly likely struggle to staff and equip the planned expansion.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced last week that it intends to increase its armed forces staffing to 1.5 million people.

Russia also announced plans to reestablish Moscow and Leningrad military districts. The U.K. Defense Ministry said that move represents “a partial return to the Soviet era organization of forces in Western Russia.”

Russia also has plans to install a new army corps in Karelia, near the Finnish border.

Twitter lit up Saturday with European officials decrying Germany’s indecision about sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called on Germany to “provide Leopard tanks to Ukraine now.”

“This is needed to stop Russian aggression, help Ukraine and restore peace in Europe quickly. Germany as the leading European power has special responsibility in this regard,” he asserted, speaking for himself and Lithuanian and Estonian foreign ministers.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called for “many more” weapons to be sent to Ukraine and faster. Regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine she said, “We’re in it for the long haul.”

Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Ray urged “action now.”

“Ukrainian blood is shed for real,” he wrote. “This is the price of hesitation over Leopard deliveries.”

Tank training

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Saturday expressed his frustration with the pace of the military support the country’s allies are providing.

“You’ll help Ukraine with the necessary weapons anyway and realize that there is no other option to end the war except the defeat of Russia,” Podolyak posted on Twitter. “But today’s indecision is killing more of our people. Every day of delay is the death of Ukrainians. Think faster.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops will start training to use Leopard 2 battle tanks on Polish soil, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told VOA’s Ukrainian Service on Friday. Reznikov described the development as a breakthrough.

“Countries that already have Leopard tanks can begin training missions for our tank crews. We will start with that, and we will go from there. I hope Germany will follow their process, conduct their internal consultations, and will arrive at the decision to transfer tanks. I am optimistic regarding this because the first step has been made. We will start training programs for our tank crews on Leopards 2,” Reznikov said.

“All the previously announced [military aid] packages have been confirmed. In addition, some new packages were discussed behind closed doors, but I am not at liberty to announce them just yet. This is inspiring. I am very satisfied,” he added.

In contrast, however, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a warning about the possible consequences of the weapons packages that countries have pledged to supply to Ukraine.

Vyacheslave Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, posted on the messaging app Telegram: “If Washington and NATO countries supply weapons that will be used to strike civilian cities and attempt to seize our territories, as they threaten, this will lead to retaliatory measures using more powerful weapons.”

“Arguments that the nuclear powers have not previously used weapons of mass destruction in local conflicts are untenable,” Volodin said.  “Because these states did not face a situation where there was a threat to the security of their citizens and the territorial integrity of the country.”

Return of bodies

Earlier Saturday, the Wagner Group, the private Russian paramilitary group, announced through its RIA FAN website that it plans to send the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed during fighting in the captured town of Soledar to Ukraine-held territory.

Wagner said on Jan. 11 it had captured Soledar, and Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region said earlier this week they were in control of the salt-mining town, where intense fighting had taken place.

The RIA FAN website, part of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media holdings, quoted a Wagner commander as saying the mercenary company would send the bodies from Soledar to Ukrainian-held territory in four or five convoys totaling about 20 trucks.

Saturday’s report did not say how many bodies would be returned to Ukrainian authorities but claimed Ukraine’s forces had suffered heavy losses in Soledar.

It said Prigozhin had made clear that soldiers’ bodies should be returned to Ukraine in a “dignified” way but did not provide further details.

In a separate letter addressed to White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, Prigozhin’s press service read: “Dear Mr. Kirby, could you please clarify what crime was committed by PMC Wagner?”

The question was in response to Washington’s decision to impose new sanctions on the military group.

Kirby called Wagner “a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses.”

Last month, the White House said Wagner had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea to help bolster Russian forces in Ukraine.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the report groundless and Prigozhin at the time denied taking such a delivery, calling the report “gossip and speculation.”

The European Union imposed its own sanctions in December 2021 on Wagner, which has been active in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mozambique and Mali, as well as Ukraine.

VOA’s Ruslan Petrychka contributed to this story.

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

Ex-SEAL Dies in Ukraine; 6th Known American Killed in War

A former U.S. Navy SEAL who went AWOL in 2019 was killed this week in Ukraine, American officials said Friday. They said he was not fighting in an official capacity.

Daniel W. Swift, who was a 1st class petty officer, was injured in Dnipro and died of his wounds, said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues.

No other details were available, including whether Swift’s body has been taken out of Ukraine.

The Navy said he deserted his post in San Diego, California, in March 2019. “We cannot speculate as to why the former Sailor was in Ukraine,” the Navy said.

At least five other Americans are known to have died fighting in Ukraine, according to U.S. State Department statements and reports from individual families.

Swift joined the Navy in 2005 and was assigned to a SEAL unit in 2007. He voluntarily left the service in January 2014, but rejoined in 2015, and was assigned to a SEAL unit a year later. After he deserted, Naval Special Warfare Command stripped him of his SEAL qualification — essentially revoking the trident worn by SEALs.

Swift also worked briefly — just over three months in 2015 — as a police officer in Medford, Oregon. Medford Police Department Deputy Chief Trevor Arnold had no further information Friday.

He wrote a book in 2020 called The Fall of a Man. Its Amazon page says he became a father at age 20 and “by the time he was thirty he had deployed as a Navy SEAL five times to include Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.” It adds that he had four children.

The U.S. government has discouraged Americans from going to fight for Ukraine, citing concerns that they may be captured by Russian forces and held hostage. At least 6,000 people contacted the Ukrainian embassy in Washington during the opening weeks of the war seeking information about how to volunteer on behalf of Ukraine.

Half the potential volunteers were quickly rejected for lacking military experience, having a criminal record, or otherwise not being fit to serve, Ukraine’s military attache said last year.

An unknown number of Americans have joined units of foreign fighters supporting Kyiv, including former military members. Others are volunteering with aid groups and human-rights organizations. The Biden administration has made it clear that no current U.S. service members are in combat in Ukraine, although there are some assigned to the embassy in Kyiv, including for security and with the defense attache’s office.

The State Department declined to address Swift’s death specifically but said in a statement that it could confirm the recent death of a U.S. citizen in Ukraine.

“We are in touch with his family and providing all possible consular assistance,” the department said.

Inspections of Ukrainian Grain Ships Halved Since October

Inspections of ships carrying Ukrainian grain and other food exports have slowed to half their peak rate under a wartime agreement brokered by the United Nations, creating backlogs in vessels meant to carry supplies to developing nations where people are going hungry, United Nations and Ukrainian officials say.

Some officials from the United States and Ukraine accuse Russia of deliberately slowing inspections, which a Russian official denied.

As the grain initiative got rolling in August, 4.1 inspections of ships — both heading to and leaving Ukraine — took place each day on average, according to data the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul provided to The Associated Press. Inspection teams from Russia, Ukraine, the U.N. and Turkey ensure ships carry only food and other agricultural products and no weapons.

In September, inspections jumped to 10.4 per day, then a peak rate of 10.6 in October. Since then, it’s been downhill: 7.3 in November, 6.5 in December and 5.3 so far in January.

“The hope had been that going into 2023, you would see every month the daily rate of inspection going up, not that you would see it halved,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said in an interview Thursday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The slowdown in inspections “has a material effect … in terms of the number of ships that can get out,” said the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “That, in turn, inevitably has a knock-on effect on global supply.”

More than 100 vessels waiting

More than 100 vessels are waiting in the waters off Turkey either for inspection or for their applications to participate to clear, with the waiting time of vessels between application and inspection averaging 21 days in the last two weeks, according to the U.N.

Despite fewer average daily inspections, U.N. figures showed that more grain got through last month, up 3.7 million metric tons from 2.6 million in November. The coordination center said that was because of the use of larger vessels in December.

The U.N.’s deputy spokesman in New York linked the slowdown in inspections to the backlogs in ships, saying the rate needs to pick up but did not pin blame on Russia.

“We, as the U.N., are urging all the parties to work to remove obstacles for the reduction of the backlog and improve our efficiencies,” Farhan Haq told journalists Wednesday.

The number of inspections of ships to and from Ukraine is a crucial measure of the throughput of Ukrainian grain to world markets, but not the only one: Other factors include port activity, harvest and agricultural supply, silo stockpiles, weather, ship availability and the capacity of vessels.

The initiative

The Black Sea Grain Initiative was designed to free up Ukrainian wheat, barley and other food critical to nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where shortages of affordable supplies sent food prices surging and helped throw more people into poverty.

Proponents hoped a November extension of the deal would spur an acceleration of inspections — and thus help ship millions of tons of food out of three Ukrainian ports disrupted by Russia’s invasion 11 months ago.

But Power of USAID said the U.S. was “very concerned” that Moscow might be deliberately dragging its heels on inspections.

“Costs of actually exporting and shipping are now up 20% because you have these crews that are just idling for the extra time it takes because the Russian Federation has cut down on the number of inspections it will participate in,” she said.

Asked whether Russia was deliberately slowing the inspections, Alexander Pchelyakov, a spokesman for the Russian diplomatic mission to U.N. institutions in Geneva, said: “That’s simply not true.”

“The Russian side adheres to the number of daily inspections in accordance to the reached agreements,” he said by text message.

In a Facebook post Thursday, the Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure said ship backlogs began in November.

“The average waiting time is from 2 to 5 weeks, which also leads to millions of losses for cargo owners,” the ministry wrote, adding that Russia had “artificially reduced the number of inspection teams from 5 to 3 without any explanation.”

The time needed for inspections was “artificially increased by checking the performance of vessels,” it added, saying there were cases “when Russians refuse to work for fictitious reasons.”

Turkey’s Defense Ministry didn’t immediately response to emails seeking comment about the inspection slowdowns.

Russia says sanctions create obstacles

The grain initiative, brokered by the U.N. and Turkey, came with a separate arrangement to help Russia export its food and fertilizer as farmers worldwide face soaring prices for the nutrients needed for their crops.

Russia has complained that Western sanctions have created obstacles to its agricultural exports. While sanctions don’t target Russian food or fertilizer, many shipping and insurance companies have been reluctant to deal with Moscow, either refusing to do so or greatly increasing the price.

Overall under the deal, 17.8 million tons of Ukrainian agricultural products have been exported to 43 countries since August 1, the U.N. said. China — a key ally of Russia — has been a top recipient, followed by Spain and Turkey.

Low and lower-middle income countries received 44% of the wheat exported under the deal, with nearly two-thirds of that going to developing economies, the world body said. The U.N.’s World Food Program purchased 8% of the total.

The organization says nearly 350 million people worldwide are on the brink of starvation because of conflict, climate change and COVID-19, an increase in 200 million from before the pandemic.

Russia’s RT France to Close After Accounts Frozen

RT France, the French arm of the Russian state broadcaster, will shut down after its French bank accounts were frozen over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the channel’s director said Saturday.  

“After five years of harassment, the authorities in power have achieved their goal: the closure of RT France,” Xenia Fedorova said in a Twitter statement.  

She said 123 employees were at risk of not being paid for January and could lose their jobs because of the account freeze — part of the latest European Union sanctions against Russia.   

Moscow had already warned of retaliation for the move by the French finance ministry, first reported by the unions of RT France on Friday.  

“The blocking of RT France accounts will lead to retaliatory measures against the French media in Russia,” the TASS and RIA Novosti news agencies quoted an anonymous foreign ministry source as saying, accusing Paris of “terrorizing Russian journalists.”   

The French finance ministry told AFP that the assets of the chain had been frozen in compliance with the most recent EU sanctions, and not on Paris’s initiative.   

A broadcast ban for Russian media was introduced by the European Union shortly after the Kremlin sent troops to Ukraine in February 2022, and an appeal by RT France was thrown out by the European Court of Justice last July.  

France was the only member state in the bloc to have a registered RT subsidiary, which has continued to produce and distribute programs that are available via VPN internet access.  

Launched in 2005 as “Russia Today”, state-funded RT has expanded with channels and websites in languages including English, French, Spanish and Arabic.  

It has been accused by Western countries of distributing disinformation and Kremlin-friendly propaganda. 

EU Borders Facing ‘Unprecedented Challenges’ Amid Fears Russia Will Weaponize Migration 

The European Union says it faced “unprecedented challenges” at its borders last year, with a sharp rise in asylum-seekers arriving on Europe’s southern shores and millions of Ukrainians fleeing to Europe to escape Russia’s invasion. As Henry Ridgwell reports, there are fears that Moscow is planning to create a new migrant crisis on the EU’s borders.