Turkish Greek Tensions Rise as Arms Race Looms

Tensions are rising between Turkey and Greece, with the Turkish foreign minister on Tuesday warning that Ankara could challenge the sovereignty of Greek islands. The threat comes as both sides increase their military presence in contested waters of the Aegean Sea. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

Soccer Body Investigating Pre-Game Chaos at Paris Champions League Final

International soccer officials are investigating the chaos outside Paris’s Stade de France stadium for last Saturday’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.

The highly anticipated game was uncharacteristically delayed for 37 minutes because many fans, mostly Liverpool fans, were unable to get in. Some fans reportedly were mugged.

Tear gas also reportedly was used.

The French government is blaming Liverpool fans, while Liverpool says that is an “irresponsible, unprofessional” rush to judgment and cites heavy-handed policing.

Some potential causes of the problems include only having three months to prepare for the event because the game was originally going to be hosted in Russia.

Some are pointing to a lack of signage to guide fans to the game in an orderly way.

Some also are wondering why Liverpool fans were made to walk through a narrow path from the subway to the stadium.

Another factor may be there reportedly were many fake tickets in circulation, leading to more delays.

“It was a pretty big mess,” said Madrid defender Dani Carvajal, whose family encountered safety issues. “They have to learn and fix the mistakes for the next events that may happen at this stadium, and hopefully everything will be better. But yes, in the end there were people who suffered a lot.”

Real Madrid won the game by a lone goal.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latest Developments in Ukraine: May 31

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

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

4:15 a.m.: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to go to Turkey with a military delegation on June 8 to discuss creating a potential sea corridor for Ukrainian agricultural exports, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, according to Reuters. 

Speaking to the state-owned Anadolu news agency, Cavusoglu said work was still underway with the United Nations to reach an agreement on creating the corridor from the Black Sea, but that issues between Moscow and Kyiv remained. He said the U.N. had proposed forming a joint observation mechanism to monitor the shipping route, and that Turkey was open to the idea. He said Russia wanted some Western sanctions targeting its insurance sector lifted, as it would impact the ships that will participate in the potential shipping network, while Ukraine did not want Russian warships to approach its docks in Odesa. 

In a phone call with Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia was ready to facilitate the unhindered export of grain from Ukrainian ports in coordination with Turkey. The Associated Press has the story. 

4:05 a.m.: The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud held a call to discuss regional developments including the Ukraine crisis.  

3:20 a.m.: The head of Sievierodonetsk administration Oleksandr Stryuk said Tuesday that Ukraine is still in control of the city as soldiers continue to fight Russian troops.

“The city is still in Ukrainian hands and it’s putting up a fight,” Stryuk said speaking to a Ukrainian television. However, he added that civilian evacuation is impossible due to continued fighting.

2:45 a.m.: According to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense daily battleground report:

“Heavy shelling continues, while street fighting is likely taking place on the outskirts of Sieverodonetsk town,” the ministry update said. “Russia has achieved greater local successes than earlier in the campaign by massing forces and fires in a relatively small area. This forces Russia to accept risk elsewhere in occupied territory.”

Russian troops were slowly advancing towards the city center in Sievierodonetsk, the governor of Luhansk region said earlier in the day, according to Reuters.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Russia Sanctions Seen Loosening Moscow’s Grip on Central Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France Blames Ticket Fraud for Champions League Final Chaos

French authorities defended police on Monday for indiscriminately firing tear gas and pepper spray at Liverpool supporters at the Champions League final, while blaming industrial levels of fraud that saw 30,000 to 40,000 people try to enter the Stade de France with fake tickets or none at all. 

UEFA ordered an independent report that it said would “examine decision-making, responsibility and behaviors of all entities involved in the final” and be made public. 

After a meeting into Saturday’s chaos, the French ministers of the sport and the interior shifted responsibility onto the Liverpool fans while not providing details on how they were sure so many fake tickets were in circulation. People with legitimate tickets bought through Liverpool and UEFA reported struggling to access the stadium. 

“There was massive fraud at an industrial level and an organization of fake tickets because of the pre-filtering by the Stade de France and the French Football Federation, 70% of the tickets were fake tickets coming into the Stade de France,” Interior minister Gérald Darmanin said. “Fifteen percent of fake tickets also were after the first filtering … more than 2,600 tickets were confirmed by UEFA as non-validated tickets even though they’d gone through the first filtering. 

The French sports ministry provided no evidence for its claims and it did not respond to a follow-up email after hosting a combative news conference. 

“A massive presence of these fake tickets of course was the issue why there were delays,” Darmanin said. “Three times the beginning of the match was delayed.” 

The final, which Liverpool lost 1-0 to Real Madrid, kicked off 37 minutes late. 

Liverpool chief executive Billy Hogan said it was “completely inappropriate” for the French authorities to be forming conclusions and commenting on numbers so early. 

“At this stage I think it’s just not responsible to be making comments before we’ve actually gathered all the information,” Hogan said. “How can (the number of fans without tickets) be quantified at this stage, before we’ve had an independent and transparent investigation? There’s also been quotes about people with fake tickets. But, again, how do we know all the facts until we’ve had an investigation?” 

Hogan said Liverpool was “reviewing legal avenues” on behalf of supporters. 

“The Champions League final should be one of the finest spectacles in football and it resulted in one of the worst experiences of many supporters’ lives. So, I would say that all politicians and agencies involved in this event need to wait until a full and independent investigation is concluded before attempting to shift blame.” 

Tear gas and pepper spray were targeted at Liverpool fans, impacting children — a tactic defended by Darmanin to prevent deaths. 

“I’d like to thank the forces of law and order, also those who worked in the stadium because they were very calm and they were able to avoid drama and so thank you for organizing the pre-filtering but lifting it when there was too much pressure to avoid a drama,” Darmanin said. “That was a decision made by the prefecture to avoid any kind of deaths or seriously injured.” 

French Sports minister Amélie Ouéda-Castéra blamed fans arriving at the stadium late for the crowd control issues but did not say when they should have arrived at the stadium on the outskirts of Paris. 

“We have seen, we have to improve in risky matches certain aspects with regard to managing the flows, first filtering, second filtering, and we have to make sure we look at electronic ticketing as closely as possible so we can avoid fraud as far as ticketing is concerned,” Ouéda-Castéra said. “That is something which is absolutely essential.” 

Ouéda-Castéra did say supporters who couldn’t get into the stadium should be compensated but ignored questions as she left the news conference where Ouéda-Castéra. 

“We are extremely sorry for all the people whose experience was wasted all that evening,” Ouéda-Castéra said. “For the people who had bought tickets and were unable to attend the match. That’s why we have asked UEFA to really work on a compensation system for those people — 2,700, including British people — so that they get compensation.” 

UEFA did not raise the issue of compensating fans in its statement about its own investigation. 

“Evidence will be gathered from all relevant parties and the findings of the independent report will be made public once completed,” UEFA said, without giving a timeline. 

French authorities will set up a working group to prevent violence in stadiums and target troublemakers after seeing a spate of incidents this season in domestic games. 

Greece Planning Major Wall Extension on Border With Turkey 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French Journalist Killed in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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