VOA Interview: US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm

Almost a year ago, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm led a U.S. delegation to Kyiv to attend a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the independence of Ukraine. Almost six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, VOA Ukrainian Service’s Iuliia Iarmolenko sat down with Granholm to discuss how the Russian war in Ukraine has affected European energy security, what the U.S. can do to help stabilize the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and what the future holds for U.S.-Ukraine cooperation in the energy sector.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Secretary Granholm, thank you so much for doing this interview. Let’s start with the situation at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. You know that Russian troops seized control of this power plant, biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, in the first days of the war. After the recent reports of shelling, Ukraine is calling for a demilitarized zone around the plant and new sanctions against Russia for what President Zelenskyy called “nuclear blackmail.” How worried are you about this situation? And what can the United States do to help stabilize it?  

Granholm: First, we agree with the demilitarization. There should not be military activities around a nuclear plant, period. It is extremely dangerous. We are monitoring the situation very closely. There are sensors that are in the region that our scientists are monitoring. We strongly condemn what Russia has done. We want them to turn the plant control back over to the Ukrainians. We are so grateful for the workers in the plant, who have continued to operate it and continue to try to abide by rules of safety. But we want to have the International Atomic Energy Agency have access so they can help with safety, they can monitor, they can make sure the protocols for safety are instilled. And, you know, that has not happened yet. So we call upon Russia to turn control back over to the Ukrainians. And we need to stop all military activity near the plant.   

VOA: You talked a little bit about the monitoring mission. What would be the successful monitoring mission? Are you confident in its independence?   

Granholm: I’m confident that the information that we are receiving through the monitors shows, at the moment, no increase in radiation. But our concern is, of course, if there is continued military activity around the plant … if there is an increase in radiation, that is a huge problem. And, you know, I mean, Russia knows this — they’ve been in the nuclear power business for a long time — that it is just reckless and irresponsible, what they are doing. So success is: Turn the plant back over to the Ukrainian authorities, make sure that we are continuously monitoring and do not see elevated signs of radiological contamination.  

VOA: Are there any tools that the international community can use in order to make Russian forces leave the plant? And if the power plant stays under Russian control, can anyone be sure that Europe will not see another nuclear catastrophe?  

Granholm: Clearly, nobody wants to see that happen. I mean, there would be fallout that could damage Russia as well. So they have to understand how serious this is. The United States, obviously, stands so strongly with Ukraine, and will continue to support Ukraine with assistance. We support the demilitarization. Of course, President Biden has said no U.S. troops on the ground, but through our allies, and with our own resources, we will continue to support Ukraine.  

VOA: Even before the full-scale war, the experts were warning about Russian weaponization of energy …   

Granholm: Yes.  

VOA: … and they were calling on European leaders to diversify their sources of energy to wind down the dependence on Russian energy. Now Europe is preparing for a very difficult winter. Do you think that European countries will be able to import enough gas from other sources, including the United States, to make up for the shortages?   

Granholm: Well, first of all, I think they have to have a multiprong strategy … diversification of their fuel sources is one of that. So both diversifying where they’re getting the fuel from, but also diversifying into clean energy to decarbonize their grid, to deploy clean, to also reduce their energy usage. And they are … moving on all of those strategies. The United States, of course, the president has committed to sending more liquefied natural gas. We are working together with the Europeans on a number of technologies to be able to reduce their energy use and to generate clean energy. But honestly, this invasion by Russia is such an example of why countries need to move away from the volatility of fuels from countries who do not have our interests. And from the volatility of fossil fuels. If we want to be energy secure and energy independent, that means we’ve got to produce our own energy. My counterpart in Ireland, the energy minister there, has said that no one has ever weaponized access to the sun. No one has ever weaponized the wind. Perhaps a move to clean energy will be the greatest peace plan the world has ever known.  

VOA: So in the short term, it’s more production, and then in the long term, it’s moving to renewables? 

Granholm: Yes, yes. Unfortunately, this has demonstrated when you’re seeing how the prices of fuel go through the roof in Europe, obviously, the invasion pulled millions of barrels offline of Russian exports of oil, in addition to natural gas. So the prices all around the world went up. Now our president and others have called for increasing production right now, so that we can alleviate the prices at the gas pump for consumers. And this president is definitely concerned about how that impacts real people, inflation, et cetera. But ultimately, we’ve got to move to clean. And that’s what the bill that the president signed yesterday, for the United States, it is the largest commitment to combating climate change of any country in the world. It’s by 10 the largest bill that we’ve ever passed in the United States to combat climate change. So it is so important for our energy security. And I know our European allies are trying to do the same.

VOA: Will it be a difficult winter for Europe?

Granholm: I think it will be.  

VOA: How confident are you that European countries will not crack under the Russian energy pressure, and will not ease sanctions on Russia right when they just start showing their effect?

Granholm: I think that the allies, the NATO allies, the Europeans, are so strong together in seeing what this aggression by Russia has done to them, that they are not going to go back, that we have to wean ourselves off of Russian fuels, or off of fuels in general that come from countries who don’t share our values. So I think we are united. It’s going to be hard. There’s no doubt it’s going to be an expensive winter. I know that the European leaders are looking for how they can alleviate the pain for real people in these increases in prices. But I know ultimately, they are determined to move away from Russian fuels and toward clean energy.  


VOA: So there is no way back …  

Granholm: There’s no way back.   

VOA: … and we are not going to see the Nord Stream 2 renew its function?   

Granholm: From all of the leaders that I’ve talked to, my counterparts in the EU, they are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.  

VOA: And of course, Ukraine is also trying to secure natural gas imports to heat homes in Ukraine this winter, and one of the ideas that Ukrainian leaders said they proposed to Washington is so-called gas lend-lease. So they’re saying that they’re asking the United States to provide the LNG through Europe for which Ukraine will repay later. Do you have any comments on such an idea? And are there any other ways that the United States and allies can help Ukraine to secure its needs this winter?  

Granholm: Yeah, this is a really important question about how we increase supply that will help to alleviate the pressure. Right now, in terms of the terminals that we have, we are liquefying every molecule of natural gas that there is with the terminals we have; they are at full capacity. As you know, from an infrastructure point of view, it takes time to add more. I know Norway is increasing their commitments as well. I know there is exploration with other countries to be able to increase. And whether it’s for Ukraine, because I know Ukraine is looking at diversifying and decarbonizing and deploying clean energy as well. All of that has to happen. Of course, it’s so much more difficult for Ukraine right now in the middle of this crisis, which is why I think all ideas should be on the table. I don’t have an answer for you with respect to the lend-lease issue. But I do know that this administration is game to look at whatever it can do to help alleviate the pain in Ukraine.  

VOA: Where do you see the future of U.S.-Ukraine cooperation in the energy sector? Is it going to be more focused on renewables or something else?

Granholm: It’s hard to say at this moment because one of the conversations we’ve been having is small modular nuclear reactors, right? But with what’s happening in Zaporizhzhia, there might be some concern about that. This conflict has to end, I think, before we make a decision about nuclear, but definitely we can cooperate. And we’ll be cooperating on clean. And I’ve had a lot of conversations with Herman Halushchenko, who is my counterpart in Ukraine, the energy minister, they absolutely want to move in this direction. There’s other types of technology that they’re very interested in, too, like clean hydrogen, for example, certainly offshore wind if the offshore component is available to them. There’s just a lot, obviously — solar is an obvious, batteries for energy storage, for renewable energy storage, lots of technologies that we’ve been talking about — and once this conflict ends, and it will end, and we expect that it will end in a way that has Ukraine independent and safe, we look forward to continued cooperation in energy.  

VOA: A year ago, you led the United States delegation to Ukraine to celebrate its 30th anniversary of independence. This year, August 24 will also mark the six months since Russia started the full-scale invasion. After six months, what is the main takeaway for you in terms of Western response to this war? Do you think that there are some lessons that world leaders should learn?  

Granholm: First of all, I am still so moved by how beautiful Ukraine was. In the celebration, there was a parade where President Zelenskyy had a young girl go through the streets of Kyiv, stopping at each of the points of history — it was so beautiful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the viewing stand. It just made me, it made me so … so … I’m not Ukrainian, but it made me so proud of Ukraine and the fierce independence and sense of identity that Ukraine has and the fierce sense of independence. I was there for the summit on Crimea, as well as the 30th anniversary. I would never have guessed that six months later, this horror would be happening. And I think, yes, there are lessons. I mean, one of the biggest lessons for the world is, first of all, it’s clear what Russia’s intentions are. But it’s also clear that NATO and our allies must remain strong in defense of countries who want to protect their freedom. I worry that Russia sees this as a schism in the world, that there is a cleaving of countries right now as a result of what they have done. That is their action. It is not what anybody wants to see. But it is what has been created. Fortunately, there are a lot more countries who stand with Ukraine, and who feel so strongly that we have to stand together when the sovereignty of our allies is attacked. So that’s number one. And number two, I think it really speaks volumes, because I’m the energy secretary, of how much we have to move and how rapidly we have to move to energy security through clean energy.  

VOA: Secretary Granholm, is there something that you want Ukrainian people to know? Some people will have a very tough winter; they’re already going through a lot of difficulties. Is there something you as the secretary of energy want them to know from the United States?  

Granholm: I do want them to know that the United States is so strongly supportive of Ukraine, and we will continue to be supportive, whether it is in energy — I mean, we have been working with the synchronization with the European grid, for example, we will continue to do that — whether it’s in monitoring and ensuring that what we can do to make sure that the Zaporizhzhia plant is safe and the area around it and the citizens around it are safe, whether it is ensuring that Ukraine feels like they have the resources necessary to carry their defense forward. And that this is a friendship that will last, so we will never turn our back on Ukraine.  

VOA: Thank you so much!  

Granholm: Thank you.

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VOA Interview: US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm

VOA Ukrainian Service’s Iuliia Iarmolenko sits down with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to discuss how the war in Ukraine has affected European energy security. Camera: Kostyantyn Golubchuk.

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Germany Treating Afghan, Ukrainian Refugees Differently, Afghans Say

Some newly arrived Afghans in Germany are complaining they feel forgotten as Ukrainian refugees enter the country. VOA’s Helay Asad has the story, narrated by Roshan Noorzai.

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VOA Interview: Ukraine Defense Chief Believes in Victory, Restoration of 1991 Borders

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said his country’s goal in the current conflict with Russia is complete victory and the restoration of Ukraine’s borders as of 1991. He spoke this week with VOA Ukrainian Service’s Ruslan Petrychka about developments in the country since Russia’s invasion earlier this year.

VOA: What goal do you set for Ukraine in the war with Russia?

Reznikov: The all-Ukrainian plan is the complete de-occupation of the territories occupied by the Russian Federation and return to the internationally recognized borders as of 1991. Not 2014, ’15. Not February 24, 2022. The ultimate goal is the victory of Ukraine and its restoration within its borders as of 1991. This is the main plan.

The “cool-down” of the military situation is possible. I do not see a possibility of “freezing” — what people tend to call a conflict — because it is not a conflict. It is a war. This is an open war between two regular armies, and one army invaded the territory of its neighbor without any legitimate explanation or right to do so. Therefore, this war is for survival. We will be defending ourselves to survive.

VOA: Per your assessment, how many combat-ready troops have Russian forces assembled near Ukraine’s borders or in the occupied territories?

Reznikov: I may be wrong, but according to the latest military reports, there seems to be about 115 so-called battalion-tactical groups, of which 105 are actively deployed, and 10 are on rotation for replenishment or rest. In sum, there are up to 135,000 people.

VOA: What new military equipment do you expect to receive from the United States and other Western countries?

Reznikov: We are certainly expecting support and assistance from our partners. We are hopeful that a political decision will be made to give us [an] ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile System] that would allow us to hit targets up to 300 km away. This would also allow us to preserve more lives of our soldiers — men and women — and inflict very successful damage. We are hopeful to finally receive Western planes that would allow us to dominate the sky due to their better radars, range, maneuverability and speed. And of course, receiving tanks would also give us an advantage. Today, the modern world can easily provide us with technology to assure our victory and compensate for the imbalance in manpower [between Russia and Ukraine].

VOA: Are you satisfied with the latest $1 billion assistance package to Ukraine from the U.S.?

Reznikov: I am very pleased, because it contains many 155 mm ammunition for the artillery systems that we have received before. It also contains quite a significant number of missiles for HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket System]. Also, missiles that allow our military to destroy and blind Russian radars. It helps us weaken their air defense system and therefore act more decisively. Hence, we are very satisfied with the assistance package. This is a tremendous help. And I will repeat once again that I hope that a political decision regarding the ATACMS missiles will soon be made. The HIMARS have changed our battlefield strategies significantly, therefore the ATACMS will be a great addition to benefit Ukraine and the civilized world.

VOA: Has Ukraine lost in battle any of the HIMARS systems delivered to Ukraine by the U.S. so far?

Reznikov: I can confirm with absolute responsibility that not a single HIMARS was lost. Therefore, when you read Russian mass media or social networks about “a soldier Ivanov with a Kalashnikov breaking into a truck where he destroyed 12 HIMARS” — all you can do is laugh, shake your head and say, “Well, this is simply their system of propaganda.” It’s total nonsense.

VOA: Do you have any agreements with the U.S. for not hitting Russian military objects in Crimea with the weapons systems provided?

Reznikov: We have an agreement with the United States that we will not be using the weapons provided to us by our partners, the United States, to target the territory of the Russian Federation. However, if we are talking about de-occupying the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine where our enemies are located, then accordingly, we have no such restrictions.

VOA: What measures has Ukraine put in place to monitor and provide control for the use of U.S, weapons systems delivered to Ukraine?

Reznikov: We have several levels of such interactions [to control the use of delivered weapons] because to me, it is fundamentally important to retain and even grow the level of trust. It is essential to maintain this support. And from my first appeals to [U.S. Defense Secretary] Mr. Lloyd Austin and other ministers at the Ramstein conference [on April 26], I said directly in my speech, “Please help us create a system of maximum transparent control of weapons so that you could have open access to this information. We open this information for you completely. Send your emissaries and controllers, even if you would like for them to go to the front line. Feel free to control it according to your own systems.”

And some countries did send their representatives to us immediately according to their security regulations. I will emphasize once again that we are totally interested in the transparency of those things, because if some people are saying that there is some smuggling involved, all that is are propagandistic narratives aimed at weakening this very support and lowering the level of trust.

VOA: What is your message to the world on the eve of Ukraine Independence Day on August 24?

Reznikov: I want to ask everyone — please believe in Ukraine. We continue to pay for our independence. We may have gained independence a little easier than other countries have, as we have not paid so much in blood. But now we are paying a lot, and we are washing our independence with blood. I want to add that today, the Independence Day of Ukraine is simultaneously the Independence Day of many European countries. Therefore, I ask you not to give in to the syndrome of fatigue. Stay with us, and we will win together. Ukraine will win. Everything will be Ukraine!

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In Ukraine’s Hard-Hit Chernihiv, Volunteers Help Older People Survive

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken a heavy toll on its northern Chernihiv region. Older residents have lost almost everything, including their homes and personal possessions. But volunteers are doing their best to help these people return to normal life. Anna Kosstutschenko has the story. VOA footage by Paviel Syhodolskiy.

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Myanmar to Import Russian Oil, Military Says

Military-ruled Myanmar plans to import Russian gasoline and fuel oil to ease supply concerns and rising prices, a junta spokesperson said, the latest developing country to do so amid a global energy crisis.

The Southeast Asian country has maintained friendly ties with Russia, even as both remain under a raft of sanctions from Western countries — Myanmar for a military coup that overthrew an elected government last year, and Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a “special military operation.”

Russia is seeking new customers for its energy in the region as its biggest export destination, Europe, will impose an embargo on Russian oil in phases later this year.

“We have received permission to import petrol from Russia,” military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said during a news conference Wednesday, adding that it was favored for its “quality and low cost.”

Fuel oil shipments are due to start arriving from September, according to media.

Zaw Min Tun said junta chief Min Aung Hlaing discussed oil and gas during a trip to Russia last month. Myanmar now imports its fuel through Singapore.

Myanmar would consider joint oil exploration in Myanmar with Russia and China, he said.

The military has set up a Russian Oil Purchasing Committee headed by a close ally of Min Aung Hlaing to oversee the buying, importing, and transport of fuel at reasonable prices based on Myanmar’s needs, according to a statement published in a state newspaper on Wednesday.

In addition to political turmoil and civil unrest, Myanmar has been hit hard by high fuel prices and power cuts, prompting its military leadership to turn to imports of fuel oil that can be used in power plants.

Petrol prices have surged about 350% since the coup in February last year to about $1  (2,300-2,700 kyat) per liter. 

In the past week, petrol stations have shut down in various parts of the country because of shortages, according to media reports.

Russia is also a major supplier of weapons to the Myanmar military.

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Zelenskyy Hosting UN Chief, Turkey’s President in Lviv 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are set to meet Thursday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv with an agenda expected to include a global food crisis, threats to a nuclear power plant, and finding a political solution to the war launched by Russia. 

Efforts to ease the food crisis are ongoing, with ships carrying Ukrainian exports now able to depart under an agreement the U.N. and Turkey brokered in late July with Russia and Ukraine. 

Guterres is scheduled to travel Friday to visit a port in Odesa, then on Saturday to Istanbul to see the Joint Coordination Center that is monitoring the export system, including inspections of inbound and outbound ships demanded by Russia.  

The center said it expects inspections teams to conduct checks Thursday on four ships that departed Ukraine this week.    

Those include the Osprey S, which is carrying corn to Turkey, the Ramus and its cargo of wheat bound for Turkey, the Brave Commander carrying wheat to Djibouti, and the Bonita carrying corn to South Korea. 

Four other ships are set to be inspected on their way to Ukraine. Russia has sought to ensure that inbound vessels are not bringing weapons for Ukrainian forces. 

Three more ships departed Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Wednesday.  The coordination center said the Sara, carrying 8,000 metric tons of corn, and the Efe, carrying 7,250 metric tons of sunflower oil, left the Odesa port bound for Turkey.     

The Petrel S, loaded with 18,500 metric tons of sunflower meal, left the Chornomorsk port and was headed to Amsterdam, the coordination center said.  

Since exports began August 1, 24 vessels have left Ukraine.   

Crimea blasts 

A series of explosions during the past week in Russian-occupied Crimea are part of a new strategy being deployed by Ukrainian forces in the war, a Ukraine official said Wednesday.    

A week ago, an attack at a Russian air base in Crimea destroyed nine warplanes. On Tuesday, a series of explosions rocked an ammunitions storage facility at a Russian base.  

Russia called the latest attacks “sabotage.”  

Ukrainian officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post that Ukraine special forces were responsible for the attacks in Crimea.  

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the Post that the Ukrainian government’s official position is that it can neither confirm nor deny Ukrainian involvement in the Crimea attacks.   

However, Reznikov also told the Post that striking targets behind Russian lines is part of Ukraine’s current military strategy. He added that Ukraine lacks weapons with the range to reach targets in Crimea from Ukrainian-controlled territory.  

In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have vowed to recapture Crimea and other territories now occupied by Russia after Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.  

In a speech following the August 9 attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the war “began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – its liberation.”   

Elsewhere, Russian shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, killed seven people and injured 16, the Ukrainian Emergencies Service said Wednesday. 

Kharkiv has often been targeted, and Zelenskyy called Wednesday’s attack “a devious and cynical strike on civilians with no justification” in a Telegram post.  

Also on Wednesday, Ukraine held disaster response drills after repeated shelling of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest of its kind in Europe.   

Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko told Reuters his government was very concerned about the safety of the plant in Enerhodar in the southeast of the country.     

Both sides have accused the other of attacks near the facility in recent days and engaging in what they call “nuclear terrorism,” Reuters reported.       

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

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Two More Baltic Countries Quit China-Led Forum Amid Ukraine War

Estonia and Latvia say they are pulling out of a decade-old mechanism established by China to deepen its influence in Europe, following their Baltic neighbor Lithuania, which left the group last year.

Sixteen nations joined the China and Central and Eastern European Cooperation (China-CEEC) Forum when it was established in April 2012, with an inaugural summit held in Poland. The 16+1, as it was known, appeared to be gaining influence when Greece joined in 2019.

But Lithuania quit the group in 2021 over security concerns and frustrations with growing authoritarianism in Beijing, leading lawmakers from Lithuania told VOA earlier this year. The country also said it wanted to end the practice of dealing with major powers on a subregional group basis, preferring a united European Union approach.

Lithuania’s two Baltic neighbors announced last week that they, too, would no longer participate in the grouping’s activities. China’s close ties with Russia factored in their country’s decision, a statement issued by the Latvian foreign ministry said.

Both countries said they want to continue to work toward constructive and pragmatic relations with China but would like to do so within the framework of EU-China relations, and “in line with rules-based international order and values such as human rights.”

On sidelines since early 2021

The last summit held under the China-CEEC mechanism was in February 2021, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosted top officials in a virtual meeting. “Since then, Estonia has not participated or kept track of the events,” Aari Lemmik, counselor for press and cultural affairs at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, told VOA.

Latvia, meanwhile, stated that in the current geopolitical setting, its continued participation in the 16+1 format is no longer in line with its strategic objectives.

“China-Russia relations are growing closer. China has repeatedly confirmed its strategic partnership with Russia even after the latter embarked upon wide-scale military aggression in Ukraine, for which China is putting the blame on the West,” read a statement provided to VOA by the Latvian Embassy in Washington.

“Since 16+1 is a format for international dialogue, and not an international organization, no formal withdrawal procedures are applicable. Latvia simply will no longer participate in the activities of this framework,” the statement said.

A Romanian-based expert who has been following China and Central and Eastern Europe described the 16+1 exercise as “an initiative that failed to turn into a ‘fan club’ of China partners.”

“For the time being, at least in the short and medium term, I think [China’s] expansion reached its limits,” said Horia Ciurtin, an expert at the New Strategy Center, a think tank headquartered in Bucharest, in written answers to questions from VOA. “It hit a ceiling and it will slowly ossify and withdraw. And this is not only the case of Central/Eastern Europe, but throughout the scattered map.”

Ciurtin thinks that the conflict in Ukraine and China’s ties with Russia have made it more difficult for China to market itself as a benign investor or trading partner. In addition, he sees the decisions made by Latvia and Estonia as a form of Baltic solidarity.

The war in Ukraine “presented a good opportunity for Latvia and Estonia to follow Lithuania’s path,” he said.

Lithuania punished

Lithuania has been the target of Chinese political and economic punitive measures since its decision last year to leave the China-CEEC forum and expand trade ties with democratic Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province. Beijing’s effort has been widely seen as designed to scare off other countries that may want to follow suit.

Following an online meeting between the Chinese and Estonian foreign ministers in January, Chinese state media hailed Estonia as an “example” of how European nations handle their relations with Beijing, “in sharp contrast to Lithuania.”

But following last week’s announcement, Beijing’s Global Times published an article casting Estonia’s and Latvia’s decisions as “shortsighted” and the result of bowing to U.S. pressure. The newspaper added that their role within the China-CEEC forum had been “marginal,” and that the forum would continue regardless.

Global Times also said that neither the U.S. nor the EU can be counted on to deliver the kind of economic help China delivers.

Asked to respond, a State Department spokesperson said the United States “will continue to closely support [Estonia’s and Latvia’s] efforts to make the Baltics a more resilient and prosperous region.

“Estonia and Latvia are valued NATO allies and key U.S. partners across a range of issues, including through our strong defense and economic ties, and on the promotion of democracy and human rights,” the spokesperson said.

“Beyond our commitment to the same values, our free, democratic countries produce prosperity that helps our economies thrive,” the spokesperson added.

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Russian Police Search Homes of Journalists Contributing to RFE/RL Programs

Russian police have searched the homes of several journalists contributing to programs of RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Idel.Realities, an online project that covers news and events in the Volga-Urals region.

On August 17, police in the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan region, Kazan, searched the home of sociologist Iskander Yasaveyev, who is a columnist for the Idel.Realities online project.

Yasaveyev’s lawyer, Rim Sabirov, said police took his client to the Investigative Committee for questioning. According to Sabirov, the law enforcement officers confiscated all the mobile phones belonging to Yasaveyev’s family members.

At this point it remains unclear why exactly Yasaveyev, who is known for his open stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was detained for questioning.

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin website Tatar-Inform reported on August 17 that police searched the homes of seven other local journalists who work as freelancers or contribute to RFE/RL’s Russian and Tatar-Bashkir services, as well as to Idel.Realities.

Only one of the journalists targeted was identified: Marina Yudkevich, who is also a columnist for Idel.Realities.

According to Tatar-Inform, the searches were linked to the journalists’ articles covering Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin in March signed a law that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing “deliberately false information” about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of “deliberately false information” about the Russian military that leads to “serious consequences” is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal “to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia” or “for discrediting such use” with a penalty possible of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

Multiple websites of RFE/RL, the BBC and other independent media outlets have been blocked over what Russian regulators claim is erroneous reporting.

Separately, on August 17, a contributor in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg to RFE/RL’s Russian Service and several other independent media outlets, Yelena Shukayeva, was sentenced to 14 days in jail on charges of propaganda and public demonstration of extremist groups’ symbols.

Shutayeva’s lawyer, Roman Kachanov, said the charges against his client stemmed from her reposting materials prepared by jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s team.

Russia last year declared Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation “extremist” and banned the use of any symbols tied to the group as part of a widening crackdown on the opposition.

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Turkey, Israel to Re-Appoint Ambassadors after Four-Year Chill

Turkey and Israel said on Wednesday they will re-appoint respective ambassadors more than four years after they were called back, marking another milestone after months of steady improvement in relations.

The two regional powers had expelled ambassadors in 2018 over the killing of 60 Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests on the Gaza border against the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

But they have been working to mend long-strained ties with energy emerging as a key area for potential cooperation.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office said on Wednesday the two countries decided to restore full diplomatic ties.

“It was decided to once again upgrade the level of the relations between the two countries to that of full diplomatic ties and to return ambassadors and consuls general,” Lapid’s office said in a statement following a conversation between the prime minister and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

“Upgrading relations will contribute to deepening ties between the two peoples, expanding economic, trade, and cultural ties, and strengthening regional stability,” it added.

Avisit to Turkey by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in March, followed by visits by both foreign ministers, helped warm relations after more than a decade of tensions.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the appointment of ambassadors was one of the steps in the normalization of ties.

“Such a positive step came from Israel as a result of these efforts, and as Turkey, we also decided to appoint an ambassador to Israel, to Tel Aviv,” Cavusoglu said at a news conference in Ankara, adding Turkey was selecting someone.

The move, which comes as Israel has sought to improve ties with regional powers, was agreed two years after the so-called Abraham Accords which saw relations normalized between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Turkey also launched a charm offensive in 2020 to repair ties with estranged rivals, making overtures to Egypt, the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Efforts with Cairo have so far yielded little progress, but officials have said normalization work with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are going well.

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NATO Says it Is Ready to Step Up Forces if Serbia-Kosovo Tensions Escalate

NATO will increase its peacekeeping force in Kosovo if there is an escalation of tensions with neighboring Serbia, the alliance’s chief said on Wednesday on the eve of EU-facilitated talks between the estranged western Balkan neighbors.

“We have now a significant mission, a military presence in Kosovo close to 4,000 troops,” Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference after talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Brussels, who stood alongside him.

“If needed, we will move forces, deploy them where needed and increase our presence. We have already increased the presence in the north. We are ready to do more.”

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo flared this month when Pristina said it would oblige Serbs living in the north, who are backed by Belgrade and do not recognize Kosovo institutions, to start using car license plates issued in Pristina.

The situation calmed after Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, under U.S. and European Union pressure, agreed to postpone the number plates rule until Sept. 1 and NATO peacekeepers oversaw the removal of roadblocks set up by Serbs.

However, Vucic told the news conference at NATO that talks with Kurti on Thursday, which will be facilitated by the EU, would be difficult because the two sides disagree on almost everything.

Kosovo won independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising against repressive Belgrade rule.

Serbia legally still considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory. It denies whipping up tensions and conflict there, and accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of minority Serbs. Ethnic Serbs account for 5% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population, which is 90% ethnic Albanian.

Vucic said Serbia wanted to avoid any escalation of the situation, but it was important to understand that there is “a new generation of young men” who see Kosovo as Serbian territory and will no longer “put up with the terror.”

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Ukraine Tells Civilians to Avoid Russian Ammo Depots After Blast

Following massive explosions at a military depot in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told people there and in other parts of southern Ukraine to “be very careful” and avoid areas where Russian forces store ammunition and equipment. 

“The reasons for the explosions in the occupied territory can be different, very different, in particular, I quote the definition of the occupiers themselves, ‘bungling,’” Zelenskyy said in his latest address. “But they all have the same meaning: the destruction of the occupiers’ logistics, their ammunition, military and other equipment, command posts saves the lives of our people.” 

The large-scale blasts Tuesday occurred at an ammunition storage facility in Mayskoye, the second time in a week that explosions have occurred at Russian outposts in the territory it seized in 2014.  

Russia, without pinpointing the perpetrators, called the latest explosions an “act of sabotage.” They followed last week’s attack at the Saki air base that destroyed nine Russian warplanes.  

Ukraine did not claim responsibility for the Mayskoye incident, but Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak tweeted: “Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses, explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves. Demilitarization in action.”  

Russian officials said the fires at the depot caused damage to a power plant, power lines, rail tracks and some apartment buildings, but that there were no serious injuries.  

The fight for control of Crimea remains contentious, with Moscow demanding that Ukraine recognize it as part of Russia and Ukraine calling for its return to the Kyiv government before any eventual end to the war can be negotiated.  

The military depot where the blasts occurred is in the north of the peninsula, about 50 kilometers from the Russian-controlled region of Kherson in southern Ukraine.  

The Russian military blamed last week’s blasts at the Saki air base on an accidental detonation of munitions there, but more likely it appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack, with U.S. news outlets quoting unnamed Ukrainian military sources as saying their forces carried it out.    

Guterres visit 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to visit Ukraine on Thursday for a meeting with Zelenskyy and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Guterres spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that the U.N. chief would then travel Friday to the southern city of Odesa to visit a port being used as part of an initiative to restart Ukrainian grain exports. The United Nations and Turkey helped broker the agreement with Russia and Ukraine amid a global food crisis, and several ships have already departed Ukraine. 

Guterres is also due to travel to Istanbul on Saturday to visit the Joint Coordination Center that is monitoring the export system, including inspections of the exports demanded by Russia. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced late Monday $68 million to help with “procurement, transport, and storage of up to 150,000 metric tons of Ukrainian wheat to address acute food insecurity.” 

“While the resumption of exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports is a positive step in addressing the needs of food insecure countries, these shipments must continue so that the millions of tons of food trapped in the country can reach markets and help feed the world’s most vulnerable,” Blinken said in a statement.     

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Scholz ‘Disgusted’ by Abbas Comments on Holocaust

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday rejected what he said were comments by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that diminished the Holocaust.

Abbas was asked during a visit to Berlin on Tuesday about the upcoming 50th anniversary of an attack by Palestinian militants against Israelis at the Munich Olympics.

Abbas spoke about incidents in which Israelis killed Palestinians since 1947, saying, “Israel has committed 50 massacres in Palestinian villages and cities, in Deir Yassin, Tantura, Kafr Qasim and many others, 50 massacres, 50 Holocausts.”

Scholz, who was with Abbas when he made the comments at a joint news conference, used a Twitter post Wednesday to say he was “disgusted” by the remarks.

“For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable. I condemn any attempt to deny the crimes of the Holocaust,” Scholz posted.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Abbas’ comments were “not only a moral disgrace, but a monstrous lie.”

“Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, including one and a half million Jewish children. History will never forgive him,” Lapid tweeted.

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

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New Scottish Law Makes Period Products Free for All

A law has taken effect in Scotland to ensure period products are available free of charge to anyone who needs them.

The Scottish government said it became the first in the world to legally protect the right to access free period products when its Period Products Act came into force Monday.

Under the new law, schools, colleges and universities as well as local government bodies must make a range of period products such as tampons and sanitary pads available for free in their bathrooms. The Scottish government already invested millions of pounds since 2017 to fund free period products in educational institutions, but the law makes it a legal requirement.

A mobile phone app also helps people find the nearest place — such as the local library or community center — where they can pick up period products.

“Providing access to free period products is fundamental to equality and dignity, and removes the financial barriers to accessing them,” Scottish Social Justice Secretary Shona Robison said.

“This is more important than ever at a time when people are making difficult choices due to the cost-of-living crisis and we never want anyone to be in a position where they cannot access period products,” she added.

The bill, which was passed unanimously in 2020, was introduced by Scottish Parliament lawmaker Monica Lennon, who had campaigned against “period poverty” — when someone who needs sanitary products can’t afford them.

“Proud of what we have achieved in Scotland,” Lennon tweeted Monday. “We are the first but won’t be the last.”

The Scottish government said its move was world-leading, with countries including South Korea and New Zealand taking similar approaches.

Last year New Zealand’s government said all schools in the country were to offer free period products as part of a drive to help students from poorer families who were missing school because of period poverty.

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