In Corsica, autonomy measure stirs debate and doubt 

CORTE, CORSICA   — The colorful graffiti sprinkled across this mountain town offers one clue about some political sentiments here.

“Liberty for Stephanu Ori,” is plastered on one peeling wall, referring to a Corsican militant arrested last month. Another pays tribute to nationalist Yvan Colonna, killed in jail where he was serving time for the assassination of a top French official.

Still others offer the shorthand call — AFF — for French to leave the island.

Perched on a hill of rugged northern Corsica, Corte is the undisputed cultural and political heart of this French Mediterranean island, which has long fought for greater self-rule from Paris. Today, some some are hopeful that could happen following an agreement last month to insert language in France’s constitution recognizing “an autonomous status” for Corsica.

Top Corsican official Gilles Simeoni called the March agreement — since approved by Corsica’s legislature — a “decisive step,” but cautioned it was just a beginning.

The measure still needs to be approved by both France’s lower house and Senate, where right-wing lawmakers fiercely oppose it. Even if the measure is approved, it is unclear just how much of a difference it will make.

“It’s a step, not necessarily a big one,” said Andre Fazi, a political scientist at the University of Corte. “it could end up making no real change, with the central power retaining the final say when it comes to Corsican national assembly decisions.”

“What is clear is nobody is thrilled about this reform,” he added of the mixed reaction. “Those who support a strong French state will be against this reform. Those who support Corsican independence will say it doesn’t go far enough.”

Even some Corsicans, fiercely proud of their identity, are worried about giving local authorities too much say on some matters.

“I am for Corsican autonomy, but I have real questions about the competence of those managing Corsica today,” said Dominique, a Corsican retiree and former senior French public servant. He declined to give his last name because of the sensitive topic. “If they can’t manage basic things like garbage, why give them more power?”

Paoli’s legacy

The fleeting years when Corsican did have self rule — more than two centuries ago — are cemented in Corte’s history. Dominating a central town square is the statue of 18th century independence leader Pascal Paoli. A key figure in first ousting Genoa then briefly France from the island, Paoli created the Anglo-Corsican kingdom, with its capital based here. He helped usher in schools and a university — and drafted a constitution that inspired that of the United States — before going into exile and dying in Britain, in 1807.

By that time, Corsica was firmly back in France’s orbit, under the rule of another Corsican — Napoleon Bonaparte.

At Corte’s Pascal Paoli University, a few minutes’ walk from Paoli’s statue, graduate student Andrea Nanglard said she is not interested in politics, but supports more autonomy for the island.

“I consider myself more Corsican than French,” said Nanglard, who was born on the French continent but moved to Corsica as a teenager, and speaks the Corsican language. “But I’m not sure if greater autonomy would really change things.”

Another Corsican student, Julien Preziose, also backs inserting a Corsican autonomy reference in the French constitution.

“I think it’s important to fight for the Corsican identity, because otherwise it could disappear,” said Preziose, who is studying ancient Corsican history and archeology. “But it’s not like we think about being Corsican all the time. It’s when we leave Corsica, when that happens.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Corsicans did leave in search of work. Some headed to the Americas; others to French colonies or the mainland. Today, some are coming back to retire, and a few to rediscover their roots. New schools have opened teaching the Corsican language to youngsters.

But among Corsica’s 350,000 residents, many are also French retirees from the mainland. Foreign tourists are similarly flooding in, lured by the island’s beauty. Their arrival has notched up real estate prices and stirred tensions.

“Corsicans are no longer speaking Corsican, they’re losing their roots, their history,” said Dominique, the retired public servant. In the village where he now lives, he said, young people can no longer afford to buy property. “Corsicans are forced to sell their land because they can no longer make ends meet.”

Growing divide

Calls for independence resurfaced in the 1970s, with the creation of the National Liberation Front of Corsica, or FLNC, which staged attacks against symbols of French governance. The most spectacular was the 1998 assassination of French prefect Claude Erignac, the island’s top French state official. The FLNC formally laid down its arms in 2014, although the nationalist movement remains active — especially in Corte. Corsican crime families are also anchored into the landscape.

While nationalist bombings and other attacks have largely ended, tensions still simmer. The 2022 killing by a fellow prisoner of Yvan Colonna, serving a life sentence over Erignac’s killing, sparked protests and rioting in Corte and elsewhere on the island.

Meanwhile, Fazi, the political scientist, believes the fracture between Corsicans and mainland French has grown bigger in recent years. Common memories that bound the two populations a few decades ago — military service, World War II or serving in former French colonies — have now faded.

“There are a lot of Corsican youth today who don’t feel themselves to be at all French,” he said. “And there’s been a lot of immigration to Corsica by people who do feel themselves to be French. And that kind of psychological rupture between the two could be a worry for the state.”

Even so, France’s highly centralized government has loosened up modestly in recent years, including granting Corsica greater political say through a series of small steps. In 2015, Corsican nationalists came to power in regional elections for the first time. The island’s legislature is today dominated by autonomists, like Simeoni, who want more local powers but not a full split with France.

If France’s parliament greenlights this new autonomy measure, the island’s registered voters — both Corsican and French — also will have their say, said President Emmanuel Macron. The majority of both groups, said analyst Fazi, would likely support the measure — one key element bringing the two groups together.

“Autonomy has become mainstream — it’s not subversive like it was 40 years ago,” he said. Still, Fazi added, if the autonomy measure amounts to little more than constitutional language with no substance, Corsica could see new tensions.

“The more the reform is timid, the more it could reinforce the contestation” against the French state, he said. “We may not see a big resurgence of attacks, but more and more violent protests.”

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Germany arrests 2 for allegedly spying for Russia, plotting sabotage to undermine Ukraine aid

BERLIN — Two German-Russian men have been arrested in Germany on suspicion of espionage, one of them accused of agreeing to carry out attacks on potential targets including U.S. military facilities in hopes of sabotaging aid for Ukraine, prosecutors said Thursday.

The two, identified only as Dieter S. and Alexander J. in line with German privacy rules, were arrested Wednesday in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, federal prosecutors said.

Prosecutors allege Dieter S. had been discussing possible acts of sabotage in Germany with a person linked to Russian intelligence since October, and that the main aim was to undermine military support given by Germany to Ukraine.

The suspect declared himself willing to carry out bombing and arson attacks on infrastructure used by the military and industrial sites in Germany, prosecutors said in a statement. They added that he gathered information on potential targets, including U.S. military facilities.

Alexander J. allegedly helped him to do so starting in March at the latest, while Dieter S. scouted out some of the sites, took photos and videos of military goods and passed the information to his intelligence contact.

A judge on Wednesday ordered Dieter S. kept in custody pending a possible indictment, and Alexander J. was ordered held on Thursday.

Dieter S. also faces separate accusations of belonging to an armed unit of pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine between December 2014 and September 2016.

Germany has become the second-biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine after the United States since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. The U.S. has a large military presence in Germany, including in Bavaria.

Prosecutors did not name any specific locations in the suspects’ sights. German news agency dpa and magazine Der Spiegel reported, without citing sources, that the locations allegedly snooped on include the U.S. Grafenwoehr military base.

Germany’s top security official, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, said Russia’s ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

She vowed that Germany will continue to thwart any such Russian threats. “We will continue to give Ukraine massive support and will not let ourselves be intimidated,” she said.

Faeser wouldn’t comment on details of the investigation. She said that Germany has increased its security measures since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine in 2022 and will keep evaluating them.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he couldn’t comment on the reported arrests, saying that he doesn’t have “any information on this matter.”

European officials have recently warned of Russia-linked interference networks trying to undermine European support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

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UK, EU face significant medicine shortages, study says

LONDON — Patients in the U.K. and European Union are facing shortages of vital medicines such as antibiotics and epilepsy medication, research published Thursday found.

The report by Britain’s Nuffield Trust think-tank found the situation had become a “new normal” in the U.K. and was “also having a serious impact in EU countries.”

Mark Dayan, Brexit program lead at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union had not caused U.K. supply problems but had exacerbated them.

“We know many of the problems are global and relate to fragile chains of imports from Asia, squeezed by COVID-19 shutdowns, inflation and global instability,” he said.

“But exiting the EU has left the U.K. with several additional problems -– products no longer flow as smoothly across the borders with the EU, and in the long term our struggles to approve as many medicines might mean we have fewer alternatives available,” he said.

Researchers also warned that being outside the EU might mean Britain is unable to benefit from EU measures taken to tackle shortages, such as bringing drug manufacturing back to Europe.

It said that this included the EU’s Critical Medicines Alliance which it launched in early 2024.

Analysis of freedom of information requests and public data on drug shortages showed the number of notifications from drug companies warning of impending shortages in the UK had more than doubled in three years.

Some 1,634 alerts were issued in 2023, up from 648 in 2020, according to the report, The Future for Health After Brexit.

Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said medicine shortages had become “commonplace,” adding that this was “totally unacceptable” in any modern health system.

“Supply shortages are a real and present danger to those patients who rely on life-saving medicines for their well-being,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the U.K. was not alone in facing medical supply issues.

It said most cases of shortages had been “swiftly managed with minimal disruption to patients.” 

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Georgia presses on with ‘foreign agents’ bill opposed by EU

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Georgia’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill on “foreign agents” that the European Union said risked blocking the country’s path to membership and triggered protests for a third straight night.

The fate of the bill is widely seen as a test of whether Georgia, 33 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, intends to pursue a path of integration with the West or move closer toward Russia.

Critics compare the bill to a law that Russia has used extensively to crack down on dissent.

As many as 10,000 opponents of the bill gathered outside the parliament, sitting atop cars and buildings — a day after police used pepper spray to clear protesters away from part of the building.

Several thousand protesters moved over to the government building, heavily guarded by police, to demand a meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, the bill’s principal backer.

Some demonstrators, many wearing helmets and masks, scuffled with police outside the building.

Eighty-three of 150 deputies voted in favor, while opposition MPs boycotted the vote. The bill must pass two more readings before becoming law.

It would require organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence.

Soon after the vote, the EU said in a statement, “This is a very concerning development, and the final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path. This law is not in line with EU core norms and values.”

It said the proposed legislation “would limit the capacity of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia.”

The EU urged Georgia to “refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise Georgia’s EU path.” The United States and Britain have also urged Georgia not to pass the bill.

The prime minister, in comments quoted by the Interpressnews, said Western politicians had not produced a single valid argument against the bill, and their statements would not prompt the government to change its mind.

President Salome Zourabichvili, whose role is mostly ceremonial, said she would veto the law if it was passed. But parliament has the power to override her veto.

The ruling Georgian Dream Party, which has faced accusations of authoritarianism and excessive closeness to Russia, says the bill is necessary to promote transparency and combat “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners.

Protesters call bill ‘Russian’

The Interior Ministry said two people were detained at the latest protest. On Tuesday, 11 were detained, and one police officer was injured in altercations.

Protesters who denounced the bill as the “Russian law” appeared undaunted.

“It is very hard to predict any scenario, because the government is unpredictable, unreliable, untruthful, sarcastic and cynical,” said activist Paata Sabelashvili. “People here are just flowing and flowing and flowing like rivers.”

Parliament passed the law on first reading in a rowdy session during which four opposition lawmakers were removed from the chamber amid shouts of “No to the Russian law” and “Traitors.”

Russia is viewed with deep suspicion by many in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, which in 2008 lost a brief war with Moscow over the Moscow-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia.

Russia defends legislation as ‘normal’

Russia said on Wednesday it had nothing to do with the law and defended it as a “normal practice.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was being used by outside actors to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

The bill was initially introduced in March 2023. but was shelved after two nights of violent protests and has increased divisions in a deeply polarized Georgia.

A coalition of opposition groups, civil society, celebrities and the president have rallied to oppose it.

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US prepared to ‘take further steps’ as it warns China against enabling Russia

state department — The United States warned China on Wednesday against helping Russia in its war on Ukraine and said it is “prepared to take further steps as necessary.” In Italy, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations gathered to reaffirm their support for Ukraine’s defense.

“We believe that the PRC is supporting Russia’s war effort and is doing so by helping ramp up its defense production,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters during a briefing in Washington.

“Specifically,” he said, “the PRC is providing Russia with significant quantities of machine tools, microelectronics, optics, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] and cruise missile technology, and nitrocellulose, which Russia uses to make propellants for weapons.”

Patel said the United States believes these materials “are filling critical gaps in Russia’s defense production cycle” and helping to revitalize Russia’s defense industrial base.

“China’s support is actively enabling Russia’s war in Ukraine, and it poses a significant threat to European security,” he added. “We’ve sanctioned relevant firms in the PRC and are prepared to take further steps as necessary.”

Blinken, G7 leaders talk

In Capri, Italy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is holding talks this week with foreign ministers from the other G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom — as well as representatives from the European Union. Topics include Ukraine support, the Middle East crisis, Haitian instability and global partnerships.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday said the G7 ministers would discuss how to get more air defense to Ukraine as Kyiv faces increasing pressure from Russia.

“We and our partners around the world must now be just as resolute in our defense against Russian terror from the air,” Baerbock said in a statement.

Blinken will later visit China, where he is expected to bring up Washington’s concerns about China’s support for Russia’s defense industrial base.

On the margins of the G7 meeting Wednesday, Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani signed a memorandum of understanding to counter the manipulation of information by other countries.

Blinken said the two nations are collaborating on “all of the most critical issues,” including aiding Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression, addressing challenges in the Middle East and sharing approaches to challenges posed by China.

Beijing rejected what Chinese officials described as Washington’s “smear.”

“China regulates the export of dual-use articles in accordance with laws and regulations. Relevant countries should not smear or attack the normal relations between China and Russia and should not harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and Chinese companies,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a briefing.

China continues supporting Russia

After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Beijing last week, Chinese officials said China would “continue to support Russia in pursuing development and revitalization under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.”

They said the two nations “have committed themselves to lasting friendship” and a deepened comprehensive strategic partnership.

Russian missile kills at least 17

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. The two discussed the U.S. Commerce Department’s work with partners to coordinate export controls and restrict sales of advanced technologies to Russia.

Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said G7 finance leaders have been working toward a plan to unlock the value of frozen Russian sovereign assets to aid Ukraine in the near term. But he noted the talks are still a work in progress.

In Ukraine, officials said earlier Wednesday that a Russian missile attack hit the northern city of Chernihiv, killing at least 17 people and injuring 61 others.

Denise Brown, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, condemned the latest wave of strikes. She also emphasized that under international humanitarian law, civilians and hospitals must be protected.

In Chernihiv, aid workers provided on-the-ground support to those affected by the strikes, including psychosocial and legal assistance. Their efforts complement the work of first responders and rescue services.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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25 years after massacre in Kosovo, survivors appeal for justice

Twenty-five years ago this week, Serbian forces killed 53 Albanians in the Kosovar village of Poklek, making it one of the worst massacres of the war in Kosovo. Today, some survivors still seek justice for their families. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports. Camera: Burim Goxhuli, Bujar Sylejmani.

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G7 foreign ministers meet in Italy amid calls for sanctions on Iran

CAPRI, Italy — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies gathered on the Italian island of Capri on Wednesday for three days of talks overshadowed by expectations of an Israeli retaliation against Iran for missile and drone attacks.

The continuing escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran and the wars in Gaza and in Ukraine will dominate the agenda of the ministers from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan.  

Italy, which holds the G7’s rotating presidency, is pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza and a de-escalation of Middle East tensions, but Israel looks very likely to retaliate against Iran’s weekend attacks despite Western calls for restraint.

“Against a background of strong international tensions, the Italian-led G7 is tasked with working for peace,” Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in a statement.

The G7 nations pledged support for Israel after the attack, which came in response to a presumed Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 which killed two generals and several other Iranian officers.

The U.S. said on Tuesday it was planning to impose new sanctions on Tehran’s missile and drone program in the coming days and expected its allies to follow suit. Tajani told Reuters this week that any sanctions might just focus on individuals.

The Iranian missiles and drones launched on Saturday were mostly shot down by Israel and its allies, and caused no deaths. But Israel says it must retaliate to preserve the credibility of its deterrents. Iran says it considers the matter closed for now but will retaliate again if Israel does.

Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also be a major topic in Capri, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg scheduled to join the talks on Thursday.

Germany said on Wednesday the G7 ministers would discuss how to get more air defenses to Ukraine as Kyiv faces increasing pressure from relentless Russian air strikes on its energy network.

Another key issue will be ways of utilizing profits from some $300 billion of sovereign Russian assets held in the West to help Ukraine, amid hesitation among some European Union member states over the legality of such a move.

The opening session of the meeting on Wednesday evening will focus on Gaza and Iran, with the situation in the Red Sea under scrutiny on Thursday morning. Before turning to Ukraine, the ministers will look at ways of strengthening ties with Africa.

The G7 ministers will also discuss stability in the Indo-Pacific region, Italy has said, and hold debates on issues including infrastructure connectivity, cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence and the fight against fake news.

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Russian shelling severely damages Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Dam

In late March, Russian shelling severely damaged Ukraine’s largest hydroelectric plant. The attack on the Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Station and dam in the frontline city of Zaporizhzhia is a challenge for locals and those living both up and downstream. Eva Myronova has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

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At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Moscow sharpens warnings to Israel, in apparent pivot to Iran

Moscow has avoided condemning Iran’s attack against Israel while calling on Israeli leaders to exercise restraint. Analysts say the Kremlin’s statements suggest it has chosen Iran as a preferred partner and abandoned the delicate diplomatic balance that it cultivated for decades in the region. Steve Baragona narrates this report by Ricardo Marquina.

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