Russians Fleeing to Belarus to Avoid Draft — But Will It Help?  

Thousands of Russians are fleeing Russia’s military conscription, hoping to wait out the war in neighboring countries. But those who have wound up in Belarus might not be safe from Moscow. Maxim Moskalkov has the story.
Produced by: Dana Preobrazhenskaya

Ukraine Pushes for Fast-Tracked NATO Membership; US Pushes Back

Ukraine’s bid to fast-track its efforts to join NATO, following Russia’s annexation of four more Ukrainian territories, is being met with caution in Brussels and Washington, where top officials are trying to shift the focus to their unwavering support for Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted video to social media Friday that shows him signing a formal bid for an accelerated membership with the Western alliance.

“De facto, we have already made our way to NATO,” Zelenskyy said in a statement that accompanied the video. “Today, Ukraine is applying to make it de jure.”

But when asked during a briefing whether the alliance would move quickly on the application, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg demurred.

“Our focus now is on providing immediate support to Ukraine, to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian brutal invasion,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

“That is the main focus and the main effort of NATO allies as we speak,” he added, saying such support would be forthcoming “for as long as it takes.”

Officials with NATO and NATO member countries have long said that sovereign nations, like Ukraine, should have the freedom to seek membership in the alliance. And this past June, Ukraine attended a NATO heads of state and government summit in Madrid.

There has been no rush, however, to grant Ukraine full membership.

“Our view is that the best way for us to support Ukraine is through practical on the ground support in Ukraine, and that the process in Brussels should be taken up at a different time,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday.

Russia has repeatedly called the possibility of NATO expansion an existential threat, while arguing prior to its invasion of Ukraine in February that Ukrainian membership in NATO would be a provocation.

Western and U.S. officials, though, argue Russia’s actions have had the opposite effect, with Sweden and Finland moving to join NATO in July.

The U.S. Senate approved NATO membership for the two countries in August. Only Hungary and Turkey still must ratify their applications for membership.

Turkey-Greece Relations Tense Over Cyprus, Aegean Islands

Tensions between Greece and Turkey over the divided island of Cyprus appear to be escalating. Turkey says it’s increasing its military presence on the island in response to Washington’s lifting of an arms embargo against the Greek Cypriot administration.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized the United States Friday for its stance toward Greece, saying it has become a toy of Athens in the Cyprus dispute.

He said the ones standing with the Greeks just for the sake of pleasing the Greeks should not expect friendship from Turkey.

Earlier this week, Cavusoglu announced that Turkey will increase its military presence on Cyprus after Washington lifted its military arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration.

The Mediterranean Island has been divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities since 1974. The Greek Cypriot administration is the only internationally recognized government.

Washington’s action comes as U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price appeared to offer support to Athens amid rising tensions with Ankara over Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

“Greece’s sovereignty over these islands is not in question,” said Price. “But we call on countries, including our allies, to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty and avoid actions that inflame tensions.”

Ankara has condemned Greece’s militarization of some of its islands close to Turkish shores, which Turkey claims violate an international agreement. Athens insists it’s only protecting its territory from Turkish threats.

University of Athens political scientist Cengiz Aktar said the Greek government is calculating that it has Washington’s support and is in no mood to back down from what it considers Turkish bullying.

“There is a common wisdom in Greece, don’t belittle small countries. We have a live example of Ukraine and Russia. I mean, yes, the Greeks are ready,” Aktar said.

Turkish-Greek tensions are nothing new, with the two countries going to the brink of war in 1996 over an uninhabited islet. U.S. intervention prevented open hostilities.

But with Turkey saying Greece is using U.S.-supplied weapons to militarize its islands, observers say Washington’s status as an honest broker is in question.

Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution, a Washington research group, said he is worried the countries are moving closer to war.

“I think this is significant and potentially very dangerous,” said Aydintasbas. “Clearly, both countries feel each other as a threat. We are used to occasional flare-ups in this relationship, but I think right now, the global environment is very uncertain, chaotic, and almost conducive to a military confrontation between Turkey and Greece.”

For now, neither Athens nor Ankara appears ready to step back. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said Friday that Turkey is prepared to resolve tensions diplomatically but warned Turkey wouldn’t hesitate to use hard power if diplomacy failed and Turkish interests are threatened.

US Hits Russia with Sanctions for Annexing Ukrainian Regions

The U.S. on Friday sanctioned more than 1,000 people and firms connected to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including its Central Bank governor and families of Security Council members, after President Vladimir Putin signed treaties absorbing occupied regions of Ukraine into Russia, in defiance of international law.

The Treasury Department named hundreds of members of Russia’s legislature, leaders of the country’s financial and military infrastructure and suppliers for sanctions designations. The Commerce Department added 57 companies to its list of export control violators, and the State Department added more than 900 people to its visa restriction list.

President Joe Biden said of Putin’s steps: “Make no mistake: These actions have no legitimacy.” He said the new financial penalties will impose costs on people and companies inside and outside of Russia “that provide political or economic support to illegal attempts to change the status of Ukrainian territory.”

“I look forward to signing legislation from Congress that will provide an additional $12 billion to support Ukraine,” he said.

The U.S. and European Union are stepping up the intensity of sanctions after Russia announced it was mobilizing up to 300,000 more troops to join the invasion of Ukraine and Putin ratified the results of Kremlin-orchestrated annexation “referendums” that Kyiv and the West call sham elections.

Putin warned that Russia would never give up the absorbed regions — the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions — and would protect them as part of its sovereign territory.

In Washington, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “We will not stand by as Putin fraudulently attempts to annex parts of Ukraine.”

“The Treasury Department and U.S. government are taking sweeping action today to further weaken Russia’s already degraded military industrial complex and undermine its ability to wage its illegal war.”

FBI Joins Australian Hunt for Data Hackers

Australia has asked the American FBI to help catch computer hackers responsible for one of Australia’s biggest data breaches. Personal details, including home addresses, driver license and passport numbers, of more than 10 million customers of the Singapore-owned telecom giant Optus were stolen.

A massive amount of personal information about Optus customers in Australia was stolen and an extortion threat made to the company. But then there was an apparent twist. An apology was issued on an online forum by an account that investigators believe belonged to the alleged hacker, who had been unnerved by the attention the case had generated.

“Too many eyes,” it read. “We will not sale (sic) data to anyone. Sorry to 10.2m Australians whose data was leaked. Ransom not paid but we don’t care anymore.”

The Australian government has blamed Optus, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the country, for the breach. Australia’s cybersecurity minister, Clare O’Neil, said the company had made it easy for hackers to get in.

“What is of concern for us is how what is quite a basic hack was undertaken on Optus,” she said. “We should not have a telecommunications provider in this country which has effectively left the window open for data of this nature to be stolen.”

But Optus Chief Executive Officer Kelly Bayer Rosmarin denied the company’s cyber defenses were inadequate. She said the data was encrypted and there were multiple layers of protection. But for many Optus customers, there is deep anxiety that their personal information has been compromised.

The FBI has joined the hunt for the Optus data thieves.

Frank Montoya Jr, a former FBI special agent, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that a foreign government could be involved.

“We try to determine if it is a nation state or if it is a criminal enterprise,” he said. “Now, that can be a challenge, too, because sometimes the nation state is the criminal enterprise, and I think of North Korea, for instance, and how they go after these databases for various reasons. But sometimes it is just about selling it on the dark web so they can get access to hard currency.”

Australian cyber security experts have warned that unless companies do more to protect their customers’ personal information, a data breach like the Optus theft could happen again.

Uzbekistan Says Won’t Deport Russians Fleeing Conscription

Uzbekistan has no plans to deport Russians who are fleeing en masse to Central Asia to evade conscription amid Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine, the Tashkent government said on Friday.

Hundreds of thousands of men, some with families, have left Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization last week; many headed to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian former Soviet republics.

Some draft dodgers, however, remain concerned about their safety in those countries since their governments have close ties with Moscow.

Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement it remained committed to principles such as respecting other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and supported a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.

“…Foreign citizens who have not broken the law are not subject to forced deportation,” it said.

Uzbekistan has not said how many Russians have arrived in the country since the mobilization announcement. Neighboring Kazakhstan has said it saw about 100,000 arrivals.

Uzbek officials this week reprimanded a Russian ballet dancer for performing to a song in Tashkent that could be seen as supporting Russia’s war effort.

Russia Scheduled to Celebrate Annexation of Ukrainian Territories

On the day that Russia is set to celebrate its annexation of four Ukranian territories, a humanitarian convoy was hit by Russian shelling near the town of Zaporizhzhia.

Officials say at least 23 people were killed in the incident and 28 people were wounded.  The convoy was headed to the area to rescue family members from the occupied territory.

Russia is set to formally announce annexation of four Ukrainian territories — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — on Friday. The Kremlin is to mark what many view as an illegal move with celebratory concerts and rallies in Moscow.

Meanwhile, Finland is the latest country to close its border to Russians. The Finland closing comes as hordes of Russian men are leaving the country to escape Russia’s military mobilization for continuing the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, Russia has begun opening draft offices at its borders to intercept men who may be leaving the country to avoid the mobilization.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the planned annexation, saying it is illegal and “must not be accepted.”

“The U.N. Charter is clear,” Guterres told reporters Thursday. “Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. Charter and international law.”

He said any decision to proceed with the annexation would have “no legal value and deserves to be condemned.”

The move has been dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine and its allies, who are readying new sanctions against Moscow in response.

“This can still be stopped,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in in his daily address Thursday in a direct appeal to Russians with an indirect reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “But to stop it, you have to stop that one in Russia who wants war more than life. Your life, citizens of Russia.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday’s ceremony will include Putin, who is to make a major speech, and the Russian-appointed heads of the regions, where the Russian orchestrated referendums ended earlier this week.

U.N. chief Guterres said Thursday, “I want to underscore that the so-called referenda in the occupied regions were conducted during active armed conflict, in areas under Russian occupation, and outside Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework. They cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will.”

He warned that if Russia goes ahead with the annexation, it will be a “dangerous escalation” and will further jeopardize the prospect for peace.

“It is high time to step back from the brink,” Guterres said.

Guterres’ spokesperson said the U.N. chief had conveyed this message to the Russians when he spoke with their U.N. ambassador Wednesday.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted Thursday that he assured Zelenskyy that Germany will never recognize the “so-called results.”

“The sham referendums carried out by Putin in the illegally occupied areas of Ukraine are worthless,” Scholz said.

In Washington, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal spoke about proposed legislation he and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham are supporting in response to Russia’s latest moves.

“Senator Graham and I are introducing today legislation that would very simply immediately require cutting off economic and military aid to any country that recognizes Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine,” he said Thursday.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that no matter what Russia says, the areas remain Ukrainian territory.

“In response, we will work with our allies and partners to impose additional economic costs on Russia and individuals and entities inside and outside of Russia that provide support to this action,” she said.

At the U.N. Security Council, the United States is working with Albania on a draft resolution condemning the “sham referenda,” calling on states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and compelling Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Russia will certainly use its veto to block the measure, but that will then allow member states to move to the General Assembly to seek condemnation there. A similar strategy following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea drew the rebuke of 100 countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the EU is planning to respond with “sweeping new import bans on Russian products” and to expand its export ban “to deprive the Kremlin’s military complex of key technologies.”

“This will keep Russian products out of the European market and deprive Russia of an additional 7 billion euros in revenue,” von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels. The EU’s 27 member countries would have to approve the sanctions for them to take effect and the bloc has had difficulty in reaching agreement on some previous sanctions.

“We are determined to make the Kremlin pay for this further escalation,” she said.

The Ukrainian territory Russia wants to annex represents about 15% of the country.

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

Italy’s New Government to Take Different Position on China

Italy has elected its most right-wing government since the end of World War II, and China watchers are anticipating a different type of relationship between Giorgia Meloni, in position to become Italy’s next prime minister, and Beijing based on her comments about Taiwan during her campaign.

Diplomatic issues in Asia are not usually the focus of political debate in Italian elections, but analysts noted that before the election, Meloni made a rare statement on Taiwan, voicing opposition to China’s military threats to the island. She also said she would promote bilateral contacts between Italy and Taiwan, something Beijing strongly opposes.

In July, Meloni posted on Twitter a pre-election statement on Taiwan. The post showed a photo of her and Taiwan’s representative in Italy, Andrea Lee Sing-ying. Meloni called Lee an ambassador.  The tweet continued by saying she “always stands alongside those who believe in the values of freedom and democracy.”

Taiwan and Italy do not have formal diplomatic relations. Like many other nations, Italy has diplomatic relations with China. Beijing claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and bristles at any official contacts between Taipei and other nations.

Last week, in an interview with Taiwan’s official Central News Agency, Meloni said the party that she leads, the Brothers of Italy, would join democratic countries in condemning China’s military threat to Taiwan and that the European Union should use all of its diplomatic and political means to exert pressure to avoid conflicts in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan as bridge

Meloni also noted she would deepen exchanges with Taiwan in culture, tourism, public health, scientific research and the semiconductor industry, despite differences in political philosophies with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Meloni did not specify in which areas she differed with Tsai’s philosophies. Tsai is Taiwan’s first female president, and Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister, but it is widely known that Tsai supports same-sex marriage, something Meloni opposes.

At a regular briefing this week, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin voiced confidence that ties with Italy would remain strong but urged “certain individuals” in Italy to recognize the “highly sensitive nature” of what Beijing calls the “Taiwan question.”

“The Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair, which brooks no foreign interference,” Wang said. He also cautioned against “sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”

Guido Alberto Casanova, an associate researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told VOA Mandarin that as a nationalist, from Italy’s far-right, Meloni’s adversarial position on China speaks to the need to protect the interest of Italian industries from Chinese takeovers. But her position is also aimed at building up her international credibility, he said.

“She has a very controversial background. She comes from a post-fascist era of Italian politics; she was mutating in the far right. … So, she needs to calm people both in Europe and the United States,” he said, speaking with VOA in a phone interview.

“The hot issue, in the United States, at least, is the defense of democracy and human rights. Taiwan, of course, is the key. That’s why she needs to present herself as in solidarity with the American support for Taiwan, because she needs to win approval,” he said.

Belt and Road in the balance?

The Italian government has long had friendly relations with Beijing and has rarely spoken out on China issues. Chinese state media reports on Italy have mostly been positive.

However, the changes in Italy’s political landscape and the dramatic shift in opinion toward China globally, as well as among Italian citizens, could have an effect on relations between Rome and Beijing, analysts said.

One area in question under the new leadership is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project that Italy has previously supported.

Italy is the only G-7 country to have signed a memorandum of understanding with China on the BRI. It was signed by then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and China’s President Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Italy in 2019. The document is valid for five years and will remain in force if there are no objections from either side.

The Italian government had hoped the deal with Beijing would boost Italian exports to China. However, some observers said China was more interested in building infrastructure in the country and buying up companies than boosting trade. For her part, Meloni has already voiced skepticism and called the signing of the agreement with China a huge mistake.

“If the memorandum is renewed tomorrow, I hardly see the right political conditions,” she said in a September 23 interview with Taiwan’s state Central News Agency.

Francesco Sisci, a longtime political analyst of China affairs and a visiting professor at LUISS University in Rome, told VOA Mandarin that the BRI had practically stopped in Italy.

“The Italian government has promised a lot but very little has been carried out – in fact, almost zero. The memorandum is completely empty,” Sisci told VOA in a phone interview. “The Belt and Road Memorandum is a failure for both Italy and China. Both sides had a big misunderstanding, so the document should not have been signed.”

While Meloni is expected to become the next prime minister of Italy, it will take weeks for the new Italian government to be formed.

Bo Gu contributed to this report.

US Charges Russian Oligarch Deripaska with Sanctions Evasion

The Justice Department on Thursday unsealed an indictment charging Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and three associates with violating U.S. sanctions.

The indictment grew out of Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement group formed in the wake of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion to enforce the sweeping economic sanctions, export restrictions and other measures the United States and its Western allies imposed on Moscow.

“In the wake of Russia’s unjust and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, I promised the American people that the Justice Department would work to hold accountable those who break our laws and threaten our national security. Today’s charges demonstrate we are keeping that promise,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

Along with Deripaska, 52, the indictment charged two other Russian nationals — Natalia Mikhaylovna Bardakova, 45, and Ekaterina Olegovna Voronina, 33 — as well as Olga Shriki, 42, a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Bardakova and Shriki face charges of flouting sanctions imposed on Deripaska and one of Deripaska’s companies, Basic Element Limited.

Shriki, who was arrested Thursday morning, is also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting electronic records related to her role in Deripaska’s alleged sanctions evasion scheme after receiving a grand jury subpoena to produce the records.

Voronina is accused of making false statements to agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when she sought to enter the United States to give birth to Deripaska’s child, according to the Justice Department.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned  Deripaska and several other Russian oligarchs and entities in 2018 in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as other malign global activities.

As part of the sanctions, the Russian oligarchs’ assets were frozen, and U.S. nationals were barred from doing business with them.

In the wake of the Treasury Department’s action, however, Deripaska conspired with others “to evade and to violate those sanctions in various ways and over the course of several years,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Through a company known as Gracetown Inc., the Russian billionaire allegedly used the U.S. financial system to maintain three luxury properties in the United States, the indictment alleges.

According to the document, Deripaska allegedly hired Shriki and Bardakova to use U.S. banks to conduct hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of services on his behalf.

In 2019, Shriki allegedly helped Deripaska sell a California music studio he had owned through a series of shell companies, according to the indictment.

Deripaska then allegedly tried to transfer the more than $3 million in proceeds from the sale through a California shell company to an account in Russia, the indictment alleges.

In a statement, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the indictment “reflects the FBI’s commitment to use all of the tools at our disposal to aggressively pursue those who attempt to evade the United States’ economic countermeasures against the Russian government.”

“We will continue to aggressively prosecute those who violate measures imposed to protect the national security and foreign policy of the United States, especially in this time of Russia’s unprovoked aggression toward Ukraine,” Wray said.   

US Warns Putin Against Any Use of Nuclear Weapons  

The U.S. has warned Russia that using nuclear weapons in Ukraine will trigger extraordinary consequences. Russia’s Vladimir Putin said last week that if Russia was threatened, he was prepared to “use all the means available to us.” VOA Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.