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Ukraine’s Chief Justice Removed From Post Over Corruption Charges

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Washington May 17, 6:39 a.m.

Semen Kryvonos, left, and Oleksandr Klymenko, directors of separate anti-corruption bodies in Ukraine, on Tuesday in Kyiv announcing the detention of the head of the country’s Supreme Court.Credit…Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

The chair of Ukraine’s Supreme Court was removed from his post after being arrested in a bribery investigation, two anti-corruption bodies said on Tuesday.

The agencies did not identify the chair by name, but said it was the Supreme Court chief. On Tuesday, Vsevolod Knyazev was dismissed as chief justice after an overwhelming majority of the court’s judges voted to strip him of the position, according to local news reports.

The authorities accused the justice of accepting $2.7 million in bribes.

“This is a dark day in the history of the court,” the court’s judges said in a joint statement. “We must be worthy and withstand such a blow.”

Vsevolod Kniaziev was dismissed as chief justice after a majority of the court’s judges voted to strip him of the position.Credit…Leah Millis/Reuters

The judges added that they would fully cooperate with investigations, and that the court must “act on the principle of self-purification, taking all necessary measures.”

Mr. Knyazev remains a Supreme Court judge; a separate body, the High Council of Justice, has the power to remove him, according to Ukrinform, a state news agency.

The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine posted photos on Facebook that included piles of American dollars stacked on a table and a sofa. The agency’s chief, Semen Kryvonos, said a bribe was paid for ruling in favor of the Finance and Credit financial group, which is owned by a prominent businessman, according to Reuters.

The Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office said on Telegram that it and the bureau had “caught the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a lawyer red-handed while receiving an illegal benefit.”

Corruption, and Ukraine’s long struggle against it, had mostly receded in the public’s attention after the Russian invasion last February, as Ukrainians rallied around the army and government at a time of national peril.

But this year, President Volodymyr Zelensky has retrained his focus on fighting corruption, aimed at maintaining Ukrainians’ trust in the wartime government after several officials were fired in January amid a major corruption scandal.

And as Ukraine seeks fast-track entry to the European Union, the country’s inability to suppress graft and corruption has concerned its Western allies.

Anastasia Kuznietsova and Matt Surman contributed reporting.

A satellite image captured on May 3 showed water cresting over the top of the Kakhovka dam.Credit…Planet Labs

Water levels at a reservoir that supplies southern Ukraine with drinking water have reached a 30-year high, increasing the possibility of flooding in the area and signaling a lack of regulation. The sudden increase in levels at the Kakhovka reservoir appears in altimetry data — which uses satellites to measure height — published on Friday by Theia, a French earth data provider.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service has not recorded water levels that high at the dam since at least 1992, when the service began publishing data. Russian forces control the dam and the nearby power plant, which are vital to managing water levels in the reservoir.

A New York Times analysis of satellite imagery over a period of several months also showed that the water level has risen significantly, and now covers sandbars that line the waterway. In recent days, the reservoir has reached more concerning levels, appearing to actually crest over the top of the dam.

The development is a dramatic turnabout, coming only a few months after water levels in the reservoir had reached a historic low. At the time, Ukrainian officials raised concerns about a lack of water for drinking, agriculture and the cooling of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant nearby. By the end of February, the water level was sitting at nearly two meters below its usual average.

Recent videos and satellite imagery from late last year show that at least three of the gates that control the flow of water through the dam were opened — apparently by Russian forces in control of the Kakhovka power plant. That, in turn, allowed water to rush through at an alarming rate over the winter, despite relatively little water entering the reservoir from upstream.

It is unclear exactly how the water level rose so significantly since then. But David Helms, a former U.S. Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist who researches the dam, said that Russian forces seem to have kept too few gates open to control the flow of winter snowmelt and spring rains. Likening the effect to a leaky bucket, Mr. Helms said that too much water has been entering the reservoir.

“What the river is doing is dumping a lot of water in,” Mr. Helms said. “And it’s far exceeding the discharge rate.”

The dam, which lies along the front line, has been a point of tension throughout the war. In August, a Ukrainian artillery strike targeted a bridge along the dam, though the dam avoided sustaining any damage. Then, in November, Russian forces deliberately destroyed part of the road directly above the dam’s gates, carrying out an explosion dangerously close to vital dam infrastructure.

Riley Mellen and Haley Willis

Volunteers with the Ukrainian organization Repair Together, which has been helping civilians rebuild since last year.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

This is one in an occasional series of dispatches about life amid the war in Ukraine.

LUKASHIVKA, Ukraine — The young, mostly urban youth came to clear rubble and rebuild the destroyed homes of villagers, many of them in their 70s and 80s. In turn, the elders hosted the volunteers in their temporary shelters, and cooked them meals as they worked.

Repair Together, a volunteer organization, has been helping civilians rebuild since areas in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions were retaken from Russian forces last year. The group says that 120 houses in over a dozen villages have been cleared of debris over the past year, and with the weather warming, the pace has picked up.

The effort has brought together Ukrainians from different generations who, under normal circumstances, would rarely interact with each other. They said they have grown closer in their shared experiences during the war.

In addition to its core work, the organization also hosts DJs, as well as holding cultural events with local residents of the villages where they work.

Volunteers on an all-women team with the Ukrainian organization Repair Together rebuilding a house in Lukashivka, Ukraine, on Saturday. Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

As the sun beat down on Saturday in Lukashivka, the aroma of savory pastries and soup filled the area, near where cinder blocks were stacked up, ready to become walls for Olga Varenyk’s new home. She called over about a half-dozen volunteers to take a lunch break. Bowl after bowl of food came out of her temporary kitchen, and she busily ensured they all sat down and ate.

Tamara Kryvopala, 66, was watching over a pot of stew and washing dishes as she recalled how her daughter-in-law was so terrified by the shelling last year as they sheltered in the cellar that she was not able to breastfeed her 8-day-old son. Ms. Kryvopala said they had to sneak out to get cows’ milk, which they would mix with water, to keep the child alive. She said she was grateful that her new house was nearly completed, and for the company of the volunteers.

Zeena Mezin, 73, tying a head scarf for a volunteer on Saturday. Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

In Baklanova Muraviika, a village near Lukashivka, Zeena Mezin, 73, climbed up a rickety set of stairs into where she was living temporarily, and made a large bucketful of cherry compote — a sweet beverage made from cooked cherries, water, and sugar to give to the helpers clearing rubble from the lot where her house once stood.

Ms. Mezin had been sheltering in the basement with her husband last March when a shell hit their house, setting the roof on fire and destroying everything they had.

“I’m very thankful to all these children, it’s very hard work,” she said.

In a photo from the South Korean Presidential Office, President Yoon Suk Yeol meets with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday.Credit…South Korea’s Presidential Office/via Reuters

Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, met with President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea on Tuesday to request nonlethal military aid, using a visit to Seoul to stress the need for “something more radical” than just humanitarian support to end Russia’s invasion of her country.

Ms. Zelenska thanked Mr. Yoon for the humanitarian and economic help that South Korea has already provided and asked for nonlethal military equipment, including tools for mine detection and removal, a spokesman for Mr. Yoon’s office, Lee Do-woon, told reporters.

Ms. Zelenska said on Telegram that she and other Ukrainian officials, including the first deputy prime minister, Yulia Svyrydenko, also discussed Ukraine’s need for stronger air-defense systems.

Mr. Yoon vowed that South Korea would coordinate with NATO and other nations to “actively support the Ukrainian people,” his spokesman said, but did not offer specific details on what that would entail.

On Wednesday, South Korea agreed to provide $130 million in low-interest loans to Ukraine through the country’s economic development fund, the Finance Ministry said.

While it was not the military assistance that Ms. Zelenska had asked for, the fund is meant to support economic and social infrastructure projects abroad. Choo Kyung-ho, South Korea’s deputy prime minister, said that South Korea wished to help Ukraine rebuild after the war, signing the agreement during a meeting with Ms. Svyrydenko on Wednesday.

Previously, South Korea pledged $100 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine last year. In February, it said it would provide an additional $130 million in financial aid to be used to help remove mines, restore the power grid and support reconstruction projects.

Seoul has so far resisted calls to send its artillery shells to Ukrainian forces, who need more ammunition ahead of a long-awaited counteroffensive intended to retake Russian-occupied territory. Mr. Yoon indicated for the first time only last month that Seoul might be willing to consider sending military aid to Kyiv, telling Reuters that it would be difficult to insist exclusively on humanitarian or financial support in the event of a large-scale attack on civilians.

The South Korean president’s shift on the matter was “a wise decision,” Ms. Zelenska told the Yonhap News Agency in an interview published Tuesday.

“Indeed, when there is a criminal in the house, the owners clearly need not only humanitarian aid, food and medicine, but something more radical to drive the criminal out,” she said, adding that peace was possible only through a Ukrainian victory, not through negotiations with a “murderer who has no regrets.”

Ms. Zelenska has become a prominent emissary for her husband’s administration since becoming a wartime first lady, championing mental health recovery and children’s welfare while traveling aboard to advocate for support from Kyiv’s allies. Earlier this month, she met with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain in London before attending the coronation of King Charles III.

The 59th Motorized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces firing a howitzer at a Russian position in May.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Rocket launchers, precision-guided missiles and billions of dollars’ worth of other advanced American weapons have given Ukraine a fighting chance against Russia ahead of a counteroffensive. But if even a few of the arms wind up on the black market instead of the battlefield, a Ukrainian lawmaker gloomily predicted, “We’re done.”

The lawmaker, Oleksandra Ustinova, a former anti-corruption activist who now monitors foreign arms transfers to Ukraine, does not believe there is widespread smuggling among the priciest and most sophisticated weapons donated by the United States over the past year.

“We’ve literally had people die because stuff was left behind, and they came back to get it, and were killed,” she said of Ukrainian troops’ efforts to make sure weapons were not stolen or lost.

But in Washington, against a looming government debt crisis and growing skepticism about financial support for Ukraine, an increasingly skeptical Congress is demanding tight accountability for “every weapon, every round of ammunition that we send to Ukraine,” as Representative Rob Wittman, Republican of Virginia, said last month.

By law, U.S. officials must monitor the use, transfer and security of American weapons and defense systems that are sold or otherwise given to foreign partners to make sure they are being deployed as intended. In December, for security reasons, the Biden administration largely shifted responsibility to Kyiv for monitoring the American weapons shipments at the front, despite Ukraine’s long history of corruption and arms smuggling.

Yet the sheer volume of arms delivered — including tens of thousands of shoulder-fired Javelin and Stinger missiles, portable launchers and rockets — creates a virtually insurmountable challenge to tracking each item, officials and experts caution.

All of which has heightened anxieties among Ukrainian officials responsible for ensuring weapons get to the battlefield.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

“I very much believe in the mission of PEN, but I had to step down from leadership in order to not be implicated in what I think was a mistaken decision,” Masha Gessen said.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

The journalist Masha Gessen has resigned from the board of the free expression group PEN America, after a panel at the organization’s World Voices Festival featuring Russian writers was canceled in response to objections by Ukrainian writers.

The concerns were raised by Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, Ukrainian writers who are also active-duty soldiers in the Ukrainian army and who were set to appear on a panel about writers as combatants on May 13. After arriving in New York last week, the Ukrainians noticed that a separate panel — about writers in exile, to be moderated by Gessen — included two Russians.

The Ukrainians told organizers that they could not participate if that panel (which also included the Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun) went forward, citing prohibitions against Ukrainians appearing at events with Russians, according to Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America. After efforts to present the panel outside the festival failed, Nossel said, it was canceled.

Gessen, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said in a text message that they remained committed to the work of PEN, but could no longer stay on the board, where they served as vice president.

“I very much believe in the mission of PEN, but I had to step down from leadership in order to not be implicated in what I think was a mistaken decision,” Gessen said. Their resignation was first reported by The Atlantic.

Boycotts of Russian artists and culture have been a topic of debate across the cultural world since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. But Nossel, who has spoken out against such boycotts, said the question had yet to fully reach PEN until now.

At last spring’s festival, she noted, Andrey Kurkov, a novelist and the president of PEN Ukraine, had given the annual Freedom to Write lecture, after which he had an onstage conversation with the Russian American novelist Gary Shteyngart. But there were no Russian writers in the festival, which was smaller than usual due to Covid concerns.

Ukrainian writers’ concerns about appearing with Russians had been raised earlier this year, Nossel said, when discussions about the festival began. But she said PEN did not realize until the Ukrainian delegation had arrived in New York that they would object to participating not just on a panel with Russians, but in a broader festival that included Russians in any of the nearly four dozen events.

Reached by email, Chapeye said he believed that “a Ukrainian soldier cannot be seen under the same ‘umbrella’ with Russian participants for political / public image reasons.”

Asked about consequences for appearing, he said, “I think the only consequence would have been my guilt before all the people murdered and tortured by the Russian army.”

Gessen, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union as a teenager in 1981 and holds both Russian and American citizenship, has been a prominent critical voice in Russia, where they returned in 1991 to work as a journalist. Their books include “The Man Without a Face,” a 2012 biography of Vladimir Putin, and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017. In 2013, Gessen moved back to the United States with their family, citing growing persecution of L.G.B.T.Q. people.

The two Russians on the canceled panel, Ilia Veniavkin and Anna Nemzer, left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. Both are collaborators on the Russian Independent Media Archive, a joint project by PEN America and Bard College, which preserves the past two decades of work by independent outlets, most of which have been shuttered or blocked by the Putin government. (Veniavkin and Nemzer could not immediately be reached for comment.)

In an interview, Nossel praised Gessen’s “tremendous contributions” to PEN America, where they have been on the board for nine years. “It’s a big loss,” Nossel said. “But it felt like a no-win situation.”

Gessen emphasized that they remained a member of PEN, and remained committed to the Russian Independent Media Archive, which they spearheaded. The decision to cancel the panel, Gessen said, “was a mistake, not a malicious act.”

“My objection is not to the Ukrainian participants’ demand,” Gessen said. “They are fighting a defensive war by all means available to them. My issue is solely with PEN’s response.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, as well as leaders from Egypt, Zambia, Senegal, Uganda and the Republic of Congo, will visit Moscow and Kyiv in an attempt to end the war in Ukraine.Credit…Esa Alexander/Reuters

JOHANNESBURG — As South Africa faces increasing pressure over its close ties to Russia, the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said on Tuesday that leaders from six African countries would visit Moscow and Kyiv on a “peace mission” in a bid to end the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Ramaphosa said both President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine welcomed the initiative — which includes Egypt, Zambia, Senegal, Uganda and the Republic of Congo — in separate phone calls over the weekend. Mr. Ramaphosa’s announcement makes South Africa the latest in a string of outsiders aiming to step in as a mediator. An envoy from China, Li Hui, the government’s special representative for Eurasian affairs, is expected in Ukraine and Russia this week in an attempt to help negotiate an end to the war. And Pope Francis has said the Vatican was involved in a secret “mission” to establish peace.

Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin did not immediately comment or confirm Mr. Ramaphosa’s statements, and the time frame for the visits was still unclear. Mr. Zelensky has made clear that he would reject any calls for peace talks that do not include a demand that the Russian military first withdraw from all of Ukraine’s territory. Mr. Putin has shown no signs of wanting to make concessions.

Tensions between the United States and South Africa, which has officially said it would not take sides in the conflict, have escalated in recent days. Last week, the United States ambassador to South Africa accused the government of providing weapons and ammunition via a sanctioned Russian ship that was allowed to dock in a South African naval base last December. South African officials have denied the allegations and appointed a judge to investigate the incident.

“The conflict in that part of the world, much as it does not affect Africa directly in the form of deaths and destruction to our infrastructure, it does have an impact on many Africans,” Mr. Ramaphosa told journalists during a joint media briefing with the visiting Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in Cape Town. The war has led to food insecurity in Africa, with the price of fertilizers and fuel going up, he added.

Mr. Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly newsletter on Monday that the war in Ukraine had brought “extraordinary pressure on the country to abandon its non-aligned position and take sides in what is in effect a contest between Russia and the West.”

South Africa in February hosted a naval drill with Russia and China and allowed two sanctioned Russian vessels to use its military facilities. This week, South Africa’s Army chief visited Moscow for a bilateral meeting with his Russian counterpart.

South African officials have also had to face questions over whether they will honor an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court to apprehend Mr. Putin if he attends a meeting of BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — that will be held in South Africa in August.

The issue has triggered a public debate over South Africa’s membership in the court, pitting the governing African National Congress’ historic ties with Russia against the country’s economic ties with the United States and Europe.