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By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Ukrainian security officials accused Russia of sending more troops and equipment into eastern Ukraine as controversy ensued Tuesday over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reported boast that he could conquer Kiev in two weeks if he wanted.

A Kremlin spokesman lashed out at European Commission President Jose Manuel Borroso, the reported source of Putin’s bellicose vow, saying the Russian leader’s words were taken out of context and that disclosure of his conversation with Borroso was “beyond the bounds of diplomatic practices.”

“If that was really done, it looks not worthy of a serious political figure,” Putin aide Yuri Ushakov told the Itar-Tass news agency after European newspapers reported Borroso’s disclosure to a weekend meeting of European Union leaders. “Irrespective of whether these words were pronounced or not, this quote was taken out of context and had a very different meaning.”

According to Italy’s La Repubblica and the British tabloid Daily Mail, Borroso reported to the EU leaders in Brussels on a telephone conversation he had with Putin just prior to their gathering Saturday.

“If I want to, I can take Kiev in a fortnight,” Putin reportedly told Borroso in the conversation, in which he also was said to repeat denials that Russia has armed forces on its neighbor’s territory.

Last week, NATO released satellite images of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles rolling into separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine. The Western military alliance also said there were at least 1,000 Russian troops in the area when the previously peaceful town of Novoazovsk was overrun a week ago, opening a new front in the 5-month-old battle between the pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

At his daily briefing in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said more Russian troops had been spotted in the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Convoys flying white flags signaling a humanitarian mission and sporting signs reading “Children” crossed a bridge into the village of Rozdolne, where four trucks approached Ukrainian troops, Lysenko said.

“Armed people jumped out of the trucks and opened fire at Ukrainian servicemen,” Lysenko said. “Large-scale combat started.”

Russian armed forces continue to build manpower and military equipment in the occupied areas, Lysenko said, noting recent encounters between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces in Donetsk, Luhansk, and a broad array of smaller towns and villages between the rebel-held city centers and the Sea of Azov.

“According to our operational data, there are no fewer than four (Russian) battalion-tactical groups in Ukraine,” Lysenko said, estimating that each comprised 400 men.

The buildup of Russian forces on Ukrainian territory has forced the government to revise its strategy from countering an insurgency to confront what is now an attack by a foreign invader, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page.

“This is our Great Patriotic War,” he wrote, alluding to the Soviet Union’s costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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