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Rumors spread quickly in wartime Ukraine.

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They lived in an abandoned house in a forest next to a small village. They survived on mushrooms and berries. And it took months after the Russian Army retreated for the Ukrainian police to finally capture them.

Or so the story went.

At least four Ukrainian news media outlets and countless people on social media last week repeated the tale of six abandoned Russian soldiers. It turned out to be baseless, but it provided the latest vivid example of how wartime rumors — and possibly propaganda — spread quickly in Ukraine.

Vitaliy Romas, a former mayor of Dernivka, a village just east of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where the soldiers were supposed to have been holed up, said he received more than 30 phone calls in one day. The police, military, journalists and people who were just curious called to ask about the supposed capture of the six Russians, he said.

Similar stories of left-behind Russians have circulated around the country. In one case, a Russian was said to be living in a root cellar and eating only pickles for months. In another, a group of soldiers apparently became so bold that they started a fight in a village, and were arrested by the police.

While seemingly harmless, such tales may have their origins in Russian propaganda, according to analysts monitoring Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine, spreading fear and keeping the police distracted investigating them. “There is a technology for spreading small fakes in the form of rumors,” said Andriy Shapovalov, the acting head of the Center for Combating Disinformation at Ukraine’s national security council.

The main characteristic of such rumors is the absence of a specific source of information. When people hear a story on the streets, they are typically unaware it may have been coordinated and planted, Mr. Shapovalov said. In fact, spreading rumors on buses or subway cars has been an approach throughout Russia’s yearslong conflict in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Shapovalov said, part of Moscow’s “hybrid war” approach, employing a blend of military, political and information operations.

“In the conditions of the hybrid war, which has been going on in Ukraine for more than eight years, it is normal to doubt everything,” Mr. Shapovalov said.

The story of the captured soldiers reverberated quickly. One Ukrainian publication cited a Facebook post as the source. People discussed it online and in private conversations. Iryna Prianyshnykova, a spokeswoman for the Kyiv region’s police, confirmed that the story was fake.

She said the police regularly check out such fake stories and reach out to the news media to try to stop their spread. “Such stories are directed not only at police, so that we have more unnecessary work,” Ms. Prianyshnykova said, “but mainly at people, to create tension.”

In the village of Dernivka, people said they had heard nothing about Russian soldiers hiding among them. The village has only 450 people, and they all know one another. “People should think better,” Mr. Romas said. “We are a tiny village. We know every empty house — no one would be able to hide here.”

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China’s Xi to Visit Saudi Arabia for Regional Summits

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — China’s leader will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for a flurry of summits bringing together heads of state from across the Middle East, a region where longtime American allies are growing increasingly closer to China.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will visit the kingdom for three days and attend Saudi-China, Gulf-China and Arab-China summits, the Saudi state news agency reported on Tuesday. More than 30 heads of states and leaders of international organizations plan to attend, the report said, adding that Saudi Arabia and China were expected to sign a “strategic partnership.”

Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed at deepening China’s decades-old ties with the Gulf region, which started narrowly as a bid to secure oil, and have since developed into a complex relationship involving arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects.

The Chinese leader is expected to sign a flurry of contracts with the Saudi government and other Gulf States, sending a message that Beijing’s clout in the region is growing at a time when Washington has pulled away from the Middle East to devote more attention to Asia.

The grand state visit will inevitably draw comparisons to Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for his first trip abroad as president in 2017. He was greeted by streets decorated with American flags and an enormous image of his face projected on the side of a building.

Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century. But its authoritarian rulers have long sought to deepen other alliances to prepare for an emerging multipolar world.

U.S.-Saudi ties have been especially fractious over the past few years, with the administration of President Biden declaring a “recalibration” of the relationship and pressing the kingdom over human rights violations, including the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident at the time — by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

“Xi clearly wants to make a statement at a moment at which the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is strained,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It’s a good moment to replant the flag, if you wish. And I think it’s a good moment for the Gulf States to say, ‘Hey, we have other options. Washington, you’re not the only ones out there.’”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Vivian Nereim reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and David Pierson from Singapore.

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What to expect in Herschel Walker-Raphael Warnock Georgia Senate runoff

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​The final​ Senate contest of the 2022 midterm elections will finally be decided in Georgia on Tuesday as voters choose between incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a ​high-stakes race that will determine whether Democrats can expand their razor-thin majority in the chamber. ​

The candidates were forced into a runoff after neither Warnock, 53, nor Walker, 60, got more than 50% of the vote in the Nov. 8 midterm election.​

Leading up to Election Day on Tuesday, early voting in the Peach State set a number of single-day records and nearly 2 million ballots had already been cast before the period ended on Friday.

Reflecting the critical significance of the race, spending by the candidates and outside groups has neared $400 million, making it the most expensive contest in the 2022 election cycle, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.​

​According to a RealClear Politics’ average of the polls,​ Warnock has as much as a 5 percentage point lead over his political rival Walker, a former star running back at the University of Georgia, in the USFL and in the NFL. 

Herschel Walker campaigns Dec. 4 in the runoff election in Georgia for US Senate.
JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Warnock speaking
Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks during a campaign rally at Georgia Tech on Dec. 5 in Atlanta.
AP

Walker, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has received strong support from national Republicans with a number of high-profile lawmakers trekking to Georgia to campaign with him – including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rick Scott of Florida and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. 

Trump was expected to hold a tele-rally for Walker on Monday evening. 

Former President Barack Obama rallied with Warnock last week, but Biden, like Trump, did not travel to Georgia to campaign for the senator. 

Walker speaking at a rally.
Herschel Walker speaks during a campaign stop in Smyrna, Ga., on Nov. 3.
AP
Sen. Raphael Warnock greets voters in Atlanta on Dec. 5.
Sen. Raphael Warnock greets voters in Atlanta on Dec. 5.
REUTERS

Democrats point to the large early vote as an advantage for Warnock but Republicans are hoping a surge of GOP voters on Tuesday can turn the tide for Walker. 

A win by Warnock could give Democrats a 51-49 advantage in the Senate, a margin large enough to provide Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer room to maneuver around Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have used their influence in narrow majority to block some of Biden’s legislative agenda. 

With 51 Democratic senators, Schumer could afford to lose the support of one member of his caucus and still win votes.

If Walker wins, the 50-50 split in the upper chamber would remain as it has over the past two years, with Democrats relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes. 

Republicans won a small majority in the House in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. 

Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by about 5 points in Georgia in the 2016 presidential election, but lost to President Biden by about less than one point in 2020. 

Early voting in the runoff election for US Senate in Georgia between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker has shattered records.
Early voting in the runoff election for US Senate in Georgia between Warnock and Walker has shattered records.
REUTERS
Voters line up to cast their ballots on Nov. 29 in the runoff election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.
Voters line up to cast their ballots on Nov. 29 in the runoff election between Warnock and Walker.
REUTERS

But the 2020 election in Georgia was pivotal for Democrats as both Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff racked up wins to give Democrats the 50-50 majority they have in the Senate. 

Warnock, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, defeated incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler to become the first African-American elected to the US Senate from Georgia. 

But he had to run for re-election again this year because his win over Loeffler was in a special election to finish the remainder of Sen. Johnny Isakson’s six-year term after he stepped down in 2019 because of health concerns. 

With Post wires

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Ukrainian long-range drone attacks expose Russian air defenses

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A third Russian airfield was ablaze on Tuesday from a drone strike, a day after Ukraine demonstrated an apparent new ability to penetrate hundreds of kilometers deep into Russian air space with attacks on two Russian air bases.

Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, located closer to Ukraine, released pictures of black smoke above an airfield in the early morning hours of Tuesday after the latest strike. The governor said an oil storage tank there had been set ablaze but there were no casualties.

It came a day after Russia confirmed it had been hit by what it said were Soviet-era drones – at Engels air base, home to Russia’s fleet of giant strategic bombers, and in Ryazan, just a few hours drive from Moscow. Kyiv did not directly claim responsibility for the strikes but celebrated them.

Ukraine never acknowledges responsibility for attacks inside Russia.
AFP via Getty Images

“If Russia assesses the incidents were deliberate attacks, it will probably consider them as some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine,” Britain’s ministry of defense said on Tuesday.

“The Russian chain of command will probably seek to identify and impose severe sanctions on Russian officers deemed responsible for allowing the incident.”

Russia’s defense ministry said three service members were killed in the attack at Ryazan. Although the attacks struck military targets it characterized them as terrorism and said the aim was to disable its long-range aircraft.

The New York Times, citing a senior Ukrainian official, said the drones involved in Monday’s attacks were launched from Ukrainian territory, and at least one of the strikes was made with the help of special forces close to the base.

Ukraine never acknowledges responsibility for attacks inside Russia. Asked about the strikes, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleskiy Reznikov repeated a longstanding joke that explosions at Russian bases were caused by careless cigarette smokers.

“Very often Russians smoke in places where it’s forbidden to smoke,” he said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych went further, noting that Engels was the only base Russia has that is fully equipped for the giant bombers which Russia has used in attacks on Ukraine.

Blown out building in Ukraine.
Russian commentators fear that Ukraine may have the capability to hit Moscow.
AFP via Getty Images

“They will try to disperse (strategic aircraft) to airfields, but all this complicates the operation against Ukraine. Yesterday, thanks to their unsuccessful smoking, we achieved a very big result,” he said.

Russian commentators said on social media that if Ukraine could strike that far inside Russia, it might also be able to hit Moscow.

“The ability of the armed forces of Ukraine to reach military targets deep in the territory of the Russian Federation has a very symbolic and important meaning,” Ukrainian military analyst Serhiy Zgurets wrote on the Espreso TV website.

NEW BARRAGE

The huge Tupolev long-range bombers that Russia stations at Engels air base are a major part of its strategic nuclear arsenal, similar to the B-52s deployed by the United States during the Cold War. Russia has used them in its campaign since October to destroy Ukraine’s energy grid with near weekly waves of missile strikes.

The Engels base, near the city of Saratov, is at least 600 km (372 miles) from the nearest Ukrainian territory.

Building on fire.
Ukraine hopes that Russian attacks will calm after last month left Ukrainians in darkness and cold.
AFP via Getty Images

Russia responded to Monday’s attacks with what it called a “massive strike on Ukraine’s military control system.” Missile strikes across Ukraine destroyed homes and knocked out power, but the impact seemed to be less severe than barrages last month that plunged millions of Ukrainians into darkness and cold.

Ukraine’s air force said it had shot down more than 60 of around 70 missiles.

A missile had torn a huge crater out of the earth in the village of Novosofiivka, about 25 km (16 miles) east of Zaporizhzhia city in southern Ukraine and completely shredded a nearby house. Ambulance workers collected two bodies lying by a destroyed car.

Olha Troshyna, 62, said the dead were her neighbors who were standing by the car seeing off their son and daughter-in-law when the missile struck. With houses now destroyed and winter setting in, she had no idea where she would go.

“We have no place to go back to,” she said. “It would be fine if it were spring or summer. We could have done something if it were a warm season. But what am I going to do now?”

Bombed out street.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that at least four people were killed in Russia’s latest strikes.
AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine warned there would be emergency blackouts once again in several regions as it repaired damage.

At least four people were killed in Russia’s latest strikes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

“In many regions, there will have to be emergency blackouts,” he said in a late Monday video address. “We will be doing everything to restore stability.”

Russia, which calls the invasion a “special military operation” to root out nationalists, claims a military justification for its attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Kyiv says the attacks have no military purpose and are intended to hurt civilians, a war crime.

“They do not understand one thing – such missile strikes only increase our resistance,” Ukraine’s defense minister Reznikov said. “Moreover, they increase the desire of our partners to support us.”

The United States said it would convene a virtual meeting on Thursday with oil and gas executives to discuss how it can support Ukrainian energy infrastructure, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia would fail in its “current gambit of trying to, in effect, get the Ukrainian people to throw up their hands”.

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