Ukraine lets slip the cats of war

Wars are fought by soldiers using bullets, shells and missiles, but also with ideas and propaganda — which explains why cats have become the latest battlefront in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s social media are full of felines, showing how they help soldiers as emotional support animals, attract donations to the military with their fluffy cuteness, and also fight invaders — in this case mice.

Russia is fighting back by humanizing its invading soldiers — often used in “meat wave” attacks against Ukrainian positions and accused of atrocities against civilians — by showing them with their own cats.

Cats usually arrive at Ukrainian army positions from nearby villages or towns destroyed by war. Abandoned by their owners, the pets seek human protection from the constant shelling, drone strikes and minefields.

“When this scared little creature comes to you, seeking protection, how could you say no? We are strong, so we protect weaker beings, who got into the same awful circumstances as we did, just because Russians showed up on our land,” explained Oleksandr Yabchanka, a Ukrainian army combat medic.

Cats and other animals bring comfort to Ukrainian soldiers. “Some adopt them and take them home, others prefer to keep them in the trenches and even pass them on to other units during rotation,” said Oleksandr Shtupun, a Ukrainian army spokesperson.  

The adopted felines also fight their own battles against the mice that infest the trenches and chew Starlink satellite comms cables and car wiring, destroy food supplies and military gear, and even nip the fingers of sleeping soldiers.

“If cats live in our trenches, mice will almost always stay away,” Yabchanka said.

Syrsky the cat

Ukrainian Army Land Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrsky is known as one of the country’s most effective combat leaders; he is less famous for having a feline namesake with a lethal reputation. Roman Sinicyn, a Ukrainian army officer and the human of Syrsky the Cat, claims the naming was coincidental.

“He got the name because he likes cheese [syr in Ukrainian]. Of course, a cat with the same name as our general has already become a military joke,” Sinicyn said.

Even General Syrsky found it funny … to Sinicyn’s infinite relief. The officer met Syrsky the cat on a combat mission in a frontline village where, for a month, soldiers had been living in an abandoned house infested with mice.

“Most of the locals evacuated, so the cats took over. We caught Syrsky and food-persuaded him to stay with us. He helped to solve our mouse problem,” Sinicyn said.

Roman Sinicyn, a Ukrainian army officer and the human of Syrsky the Cat | Roman Sinicyn

“The mice run over you while you sleep, they get into your stuff. They chew everything. We had to throw out two boxes of our packed rations because of mice,” Sinicyn explained.

Once Syrsky was installed, the soldiers would listen to his nightly patrols against rodents. 

“I took him home when we left that position. Now he lives with my family in Kyiv, but he continues to help the army. We used his social media popularity to collect €147,000 for Mini Shark UAV complexes for adjusting artillery,” Sinicyn said.

Shaybyk the lover

Oleksandr Liashuk, from the Odesa region in southwest Ukraine, gave a purr-out to Shaybyk — one of four stray kittens living with his unit on the southern front in 2022.

“Shaybyk had the biggest charisma. It was getting cold, so I took him with me one night into my sleeping bag. And that’s when I fell in love with that cat,” said Liashuk, 26. “He’s not just my best friend, he’s my son.”

Since then, Shaybyk has moved to different positions with Liashuk, with the pair becoming a viral sensation for their joint patrol videos.

Shaybyk has moved to different positions with Liashuk, with the pair becoming a viral sensation for their joint patrol videos | Oleksandr Liashuk

Liashuk describes his cat as the perfect hunter. “Once we were at the position in the forest and he caught 11 mice in one day. Sometimes [he] brings mice to my sleeping bag,” he boasted.

Despite their bond, Shaybyk remains a free cat, but he has always returned to Liashuk. In June he disappeared for 18 long days until he was found by Ukrainian soldiers at a position several kilometers away, chilling with the local felines. “He just needed some love. I call it a vacation,” Liashuk said.

Shaybyk and Liashuk also collect donations for the Ukrainian army, with Shaybyk receiving a special award in September for helping to raise money to buy seven cars and other supplies.

Karolina the mother

Yabchanka says he was never a cat person.

That changed two years ago, the day he met Karolina — a sassy stray who showed up at his unit’s position in the village of Serebrianka, Donetsk region.

“One day Karolina jumped on our sleeping spot, even though she was not allowed to. We started swearing. In response, she started giving birth. That is how we got ourselves a family of six cats,” Yabchanka said.

During a rotation, Karolina and her kittens moved with Yabchanka’s unit until they grew old enough to be adopted | Oleksandr Yabchanka

During a rotation, Karolina and her kittens moved with Yabchanka’s unit until they grew old enough to be adopted.

“We quickly found them their homes. But Karolina and her white kitten Honor stayed with me. I took them to Lviv, my home town. My mother was so happy she got two frontline cats,” Yabchanka laughed.  

A year later a small dog, Shabrys, whom Yabchanka picked up near Kupiansk in Kharkiv region, joined the Lviv cat gang.

“Now we’re never bored at home,” he said, showing dog-cat fight videos. “You can’t abandon poor creatures who chose you as their last hope.”

Herych the high-bred

Unlike frontline strays, Herald, known as Herych, is a cat aristocrat. As soon as Russia invaded, Herych, a Scottish Fold, joined his human, Kyrylo Liukov, a military coordinator for the Serhiy Prytula Volunteer Foundation, which delivers supplies to frontline units.

Herych, who lives with Liukov in Kramatorsk, a city in Donetsk region, traveled to the front more than 20 times.

Unlike other frontline animals, Herych remains calm during Russian shelling | Kyrylo Liukov

“Every time he was the star of a show, with so many fighters running to us to pet him and take a picture with him,” Liukov said. “Herych was patient — though a little shocked.”

Unlike other frontline animals, Herych remains calm during Russian shelling. “At most he just turns his head to the sound and that’s all,” Liukov said.

Like Syrsky, Herych uses his online popularity to help Ukraine’s army, fronting a campaign that raised several million hryvnias (a million hryvnia is about €25,000) to purchase cars for the military.

The enemy’s cats

Russian propaganda has jumped on the story of Ukraine’s “mobilizing cats” as a sign of its desperation.

Meanwhile, regional outlets have published scores of similar stories about cats on the Russian side of the frontline, presumably in order to humanize the military in the wake of ongoing independent reports about Russian war crimes in Bucha and other places in Ukraine.

Late last year, the regional department of the Emergency Situations Ministry in western Russia’s Oryol, about 300 km from the Ukraine border, reported sending a cat named Marusya to the front to help fight mice.

“She will help boost soldiers’ morale and protect their sleep, defend food supplies,” the ministry said in a statement. “We’re sure that Marusya will do well and will soon return home!”

The Russian stories, however, tend to feature cats taken in by Russian soldiers after they were allegedly abandoned by their Ukrainian owners. 

“It’s hard to imagine life without him,” the local outlet based in Siberia’s Novosibirsk wrote of a black cat nicknamed Copter. “Together with the soldiers he discusses tactical plans, samples dishes and stands guard.” 

Moscow tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets ran a story about a cat named Bullet who protected the commander of a motorized rifle unit by climbing onto his head to warn him of mines and enemy fire.  

Another outlet in Samara published a video of a soldier stroking a cat described as the unit’s “therapist.”

“Their purring has a soothing effect and makes you feel at home,” the soldier said. 

It wouldn’t be the first time Russia has weaponized cats for propaganda. 

Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait separating the peninsula from the Russian mainland, a ginger-and-white cat called Mostik — Russian for “Little Bridge” — won nationwide fame as the bridge’s mascot.

He was even given an Instagram account, lending a cuddly veneer to what the West had condemned as a flagrant violation of international law.  

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the name of Shabyk’s human; it is Oleksandr Liashuk.

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US and UK navies repel largest attack yet by Houthis in Red Sea

Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired their largest-ever barrage of drones and missiles targeting shipping in the Red Sea, forcing the United States and British navies to shoot down the projectiles in a major naval engagement, authorities said Wednesday. No damage was immediately reported. 

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The attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis came despite a planned United Nations Security Council vote later Wednesday to potentially condemn and demand an immediate halt to the attacks by the rebels, who say their assaults are aimed at stopping Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip

However, their targets increasingly have little — or no — connection to Israel and imperil a crucial trade route linking Asia and the Middle East with Europe. That raises the risk of a U.S. retaliatory strike on Yemen that could upend an uneasy cease-fire that has held in the Arab world’s poorest country. 

The assault happened off the Yemeni port cities of Hodeida and Mokha, according to the private intelligence firm Ambrey. In the Hodeida attack, Ambrey said ships described over radio seeing missiles and drones, with U.S.-allied warships in the area urging “vessels to proceed at maximum speed.”

Off Mokha, ships saw missiles fired, a drone in the air and small vessels trailing them, Ambrey said early Wednesday. The British military’s United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations also acknowledged the attack off Hodeida. 

The U.S. military’s Central Command said the “complex attack” launched by the Houthis included bomb-carrying drones, anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile.

It said 18 drones, two cruise missiles and the anti-ship missile were downed by F-18s from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as by American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers the USS Gravely, the USS Laboon and the USS Mason, as well as the United Kingdom’s HMS Diamond. 

“This is the 26th Houthi attack on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea since Nov. 19,” Central Command said. “There were no injuries or damage reported.”

“Vessels are advised to transit with caution and report any suspicious activity,” the UKTMO added. 

British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps described the assault as “the largest attack by the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date,” saying the Diamond used Sea Viper missiles and guns to shoot down multiple drones. 

“The U.K. alongside allies have previously made clear that these illegal attacks are completely unacceptable and if continued the Houthis will bear the consequences,” Shapps said in a statement. “We will take the action needed to protect innocent lives and the global economy.”

The Houthis, a Shiite group that has held Yemen’s capital of Sanaa since 2014, later claimed responsibility for the attack in a televised statement by rebel spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree. Saree claimed the attack “targeted an American ship that was providing support to the Zionist entity,” without offering any further information. He also described it as an “initial response” to American troops sinking Houthi vessels and killing 10 rebel fighters last week. 

The Houthis will “continue to prevent Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine from navigating in the Red Sea until the aggression stops and the siege on our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip ends,” Saree said. 

The Houthis say their attacks aim to end the pounding Israeli air-and-ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. However, the links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults have grown more tenuous as the attacks continue. 

The Red Sea links the Mideast and Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, and its narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The strait is only 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide at its narrowest point, limiting traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nearly 10% of all oil traded at sea passes through it and an estimated $1 trillion in goods pass through the strait annually.

A U.S. draft resolution before the U.N. Security Council, obtained late Tuesday by The Associated Press, says the Houthi attacks impede global commerce “and undermine navigational rights and freedoms as well as regional peace and security.” The resolution would demand the immediate release of the first ship the Houthis attacked, the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship with links to an Israeli company that the rebels seized in November along with its crew.

An initial draft of the resolution would have recognized “the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to take appropriate measures to defend their merchant and naval vessels.” 

The final draft is weaker, eliminating any U.N. recognition of a country’s right to defend its ships. Instead, it would affirm that the navigational rights and freedoms of merchant and commercial vessels must be respected, and take note “of the right of member states, in accordance with international law, to defend their vessels from attacks, including those that undermine navigational rights and freedoms.”

A U.S-led coalition of nations has been patrolling the Red Sea to try and prevent the attacks. There’s been no broad retaliatory strike yet, despite warnings from the U.S. However, Tuesday’s attack appeared to be testing what response, if any, would come from Washington. 

Meanwhile, a separate, tentative cease-fire between the Houthis and a Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government has held for months, despite the long civil war in Yemen. This has raised concerns that any wider conflict in the sea — or a potential reprisal strike from Western forces — could reignite those tensions in Yemen. It also may draw in Iran, which has so far largely avoided directly entering the wider Israel-Hamas war, further into the conflict. 


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Almost a dozen killed in Russian strike on Pokrovsk in east Ukraine

A Russian strike on the eastern Ukrainian town of Pokrovsk killed almost a dozen people on Saturday, regional officials said. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “all necessary rescue forces” had been deployed to the town and that a recovery mission was continuing. Read our liveblog to see how the day’s events unfolded.

8:00pm: ‘All necessary rescue forces’ deployed, Zelensky says

Reacting to the deadly strike in the eastern town of Pokrovsk, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “all necessary rescue forces” had been deployed and that emergency services were still sifting through the rubble. 

Zelensky went on to offer his condolences to all those who had lost loved ones in the strike.

6:04pm: Almost a dozen killed by Russian strike on eastern Ukraine town of Pokrovsk

At least 11 people were killed by a Russian missile strike on the eastern Ukrainian town of Pokrovsk on Saturday, the regional governor said. Eight people were also wounded when Russian forces hit the area with S-300 missiles. 

“Eleven dead, including five children – these are the consequences, for now, of strikes on Pokrovsk district,” wrote Vadim Filashkin, the governor of the Ukrainian-held part of the Donetsk region, on Telegram. 

“The main blow was dealt to Pokrovsk and Rivne in the community of Myrnograd,” he added.

The town of Pokrovsk, which had a population of 60,000 before the war, was hit by a deadly bombardment last August that left nine people dead and 82 injured. 

Pictures that Filashkin posted online showed rescue squads sifting through large piles of smouldering rubble in the dark as well as a burned-out vehicle. 

Filashkin said the attack showed Russian forces were “trying to inflict as much grief as possible on our land”.

Deadly Russian strike on the eastern Ukrainian town of Pokrovsk

4:02pm: Blinken presses Turkey on Sweden’s NATO bid 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of Turkey ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership in talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan on Saturday in Istanbul, the first leg of Blinken’s trip to the Mideast focused on the war in Gaza.

The State Department said Blinken and Erdogan discussed both “completing Sweden’s accession to NATO and strengthening trade and investment between the United States and Turkey”. 

A key committee in the Turkish parliament approved Sweden’s bid to join NATO in late December after months of delays but it awaits a vote by the full Turkish parliament. 

Foreign Minister Fidan said Turkey was awaiting the outcome of Ankara’s request to upgrade its fleet of US-made F-16 fighter jets and stressed that the ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership ultimately lay in the hands of the Turkish parliament. Erdogan has also linked Swedish ratification to the delivery of F-16s. 

Erdogan has used Turkey’s veto power in NATO to compel Sweden to take a tougher stance with pro-Kurdish groups in Stockholm that Ankara views as “terrorists”.

Sweden and Finland dropped decades of military non-alignment and sought to join the alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Their bids won fast-track approval from all NATO members except Turkey and Hungary.

3:10pm: Russia cancels Orthodox Christmas masses in Ukraine border city

Russia said Saturday that it would cancel Orthodox Christmas midnight masses in the city of Belgorod near the Ukraine border, a day after officials offered to evacuate worried residents amid increasing attacks.

Belgorod has been hit with near daily Ukrainian attacks in recent days, the deadliest of which killed 25 people on December 30. 

Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and midnight masses are held on the night of January 6. 

The mayor of Belgorod, Valentin Demidov, said on social media he agreed with local church leaders that “night masses in Belgorod would be cancelled in connection to the operational situation”. 

2:04pm: Ukraine shows evidence Russia fired North Korean missile at Kharkiv

The Kharkiv region prosecutor’s office provided further evidence on Saturday that Russia attacked Ukraine with missiles supplied by North Korea, showcasing the fragments.

A senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Russia hit Ukraine this week with missiles supplied by North Korea for the first time during the February 2022 invasion.

Dmytro Chubenko, spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, said the missile – one of several that hit the city of Kharkiv on January 2 – was visually and technically different from Russian models.

“The production method is not very modern. There are deviations from standard Iskander missiles, which we previously saw during strikes on Kharkiv. This missile is similar to one of the North Korean missiles,” Chubenko told the media as he displayed the remnants.

He said the missile was slightly bigger in diameter than the Russian Iskander missile while its nozzle, internal electrical windings and rear parts were also different.

“That is why we are leaning towards the version that this may be a missile which was supplied by North Korea.”

Chubenko declined to give the exact name of the missile’s model. 

A Kharkiv prosecutor's office expert on January 6 inspects the remains of a missile used during an attack on the city on January 2, 2024.
A Kharkiv prosecutor’s office expert on January 6 inspects the remains of a missile used during an attack on the city on January 2, 2024. © Sergey Bobok, AFP

2:02pm: Denmark to complete transfer of US-made F-16s to Ukraine by June

Denmark’s transfer of 19 American-made F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine will take place in the second quarter of 2024, once Ukrainian pilots have completed training, the defence ministry said Saturday.

“Based on the current timetable, the donation should take place in the second quarter of 2024,” the Danish ministry said in a statement.

“It’s mainly an issue of finishing the training of Ukrainian personnel who will operate the planes.”

12:00pm: Russia on track to lose half a million soldiers, UK defence ministry says

If the numbers of Russian losses continue at the current rate over the next year, Russia will have lost over half a million personnel in Ukraine, the UK ministry of defence said in a post on X on Saturday. 

10:11am: Kyiv says its drone attack hit Crimean airbase

Ukraine‘s air force says it hit the Saki airbase in western Crimea in an overnight drone attack. Moscow previously said that it had successfully downed four drones over the peninsular overnight.

“Saki airfield! All targets have been shot!” Mykola Oleshchuk, the commander of Ukraine’s air force, said on social media. 

Ukraine has targeted Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, since the start of Moscow’s full-scale offensive. 

Kyiv said Friday that it had targeted a command post near Sevastopol on Thursday. 

9:31am: Russia to produce over 32,000 drones each year by 2030, state media says

Russia plans to produce more than 32,000 drones each year by 2030 and for domestic producers to account for 70 percent of the market, the TASS news agency cited First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov as saying on Saturday.

Drones have been widely used by Moscow and Kyiv since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and both sides are sharply increasing military production as the war drags on.

“The annual production volume of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – excluding educational UAVs – is planned at 32,500 units,” Belousov told TASS. “This is almost three times higher than current production volumes.

“At the same time, it is planned that the share of Russian UAVs will make up 70 percent of the market in this type of UAV.”

9:27am: Russia says it downed four Ukrainian missiles over Crimea overnight

Russia on Saturday said its forces shot down four Ukrainian missiles over Moscow-annexed Crimea over night. 

“Air defence on duty intercepted and destroyed four Ukrainian missiles over the Crimea peninsula,” the Russian defence ministry said. 

4:18am: Russia offers to relocate Belgorod residents after shelling

Russian officials in the southern border city of Belgorod offered to evacuate worried residents on Friday, an unprecedented announcement that follows waves of fatal Ukrainian attacks.

The Kremlin has tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy on the home front, but the recent strikes on Belgorod have brought the Ukraine conflict closer to home for Russians.

Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov’s assurance that scared civilians can relocate represents the furthest-reaching measure taken by any major Russian city since Moscow ordered the invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)


© France Médias Monde graphic studio

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The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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Russia launches 122 missiles in one of biggest attacks on Ukraine since start of war

Russia launched 122 missiles and 36 drones against Ukrainian targets, officials said Friday, killing at least 18 civilians across the country in what an air force official said was the biggest aerial barrage of the 22-month war.

AFP reporters in Kyiv heard several powerful explosions in the early hours of Friday and saw thick black smoke billowing from a warehouse.

“We haven’t seen so much red on our monitors for a long time,” said Yuriy Ignat, a spokesman for Ukraine‘s air force, explaining that Russian forces had first launched a wave of suicide drones followed by missiles.

The Ukrainian air force intercepted 87 of the missiles and 27 of the Shahed-type drones overnight, Ukraine’s military chief Valery Zaluzhnyi said.

Air Force commander Mykola Oleshchuk wrote on his official Telegram channel: “The most massive aerial attack” since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

According to the Ukrainian air force, the previous biggest assault was in November 2022 when Russia launched 96 missiles against Ukraine. This year, the biggest was 81 missiles on March 9, air force records show.

“There are people killed by Russian missiles today that were launched at civilian facilities, civilian buildings,” presidential aide Andriy Yermak said.

“We are doing everything to strengthen our air shield. But the world needs to see that we need more support and strength to stop this terror,” he said on Telegram.

Two people were confirmed dead in the capital Kyiv, with more people thought to be trapped under rubble at a warehouse damaged by falling debris, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram messenger.

He also said the capital’s air defences were working intensively.

A metro station whose platforms were being used as an air raid shelter was damaged, he said.

Sergiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said a warehouse with an area of around 3,000 square metres (32,300 square feet) was burning in the northern Podil district.

“There are many wounded, the number is being clarified,” he said.

In other districts of the city, an uninhabited multistorey block of flats also caught fire and a private house was damaged, Popko said.

Maternity hospital struck

In the central Shevchenko district, a residential building was damaged and there was also a fire in a warehouse with six believed to be injured, Popko said.

Klitschko wrote on social media that there appeared to be three people still under rubble of the warehouse while three others had been rescued.

The overnight attacks came days after Ukraine struck a Russian warship in the occupied Crimean port of Feodosia in a major setback for the Russian navy.

Drones and missiles struck at least five other Ukrainian cities on Friday, including Kharkiv in the northeast, Lviv in the west, Dnipro in the east and Odesa in the south, the cities’ mayors and police said.

“So far we have counted 22 strikes in different districts of Kharkiv,” the mayor, Igor Terekhov, said on television.

“There are currently seven injured in hospital. Unfortunately one person has died.”

In Lviv, governor Maksym Kozytsky said that “one person was killed and three wounded”.

In Dnipro, the mayor, Borys Filatov, said there were injured and dead. The health ministry said that a maternity hospital in the city had been “severely damaged”.

Two people were killed in the Black Sea port city of Odesa and at least 15 were injured, including two children, as missiles hit residential buildings, the regional governor said.

Ukraine’s southern command said 14 attack drones had been destroyed in the south of the country and there were no casualties reported.

The Polish army said a Russian missile passed through Polish airspace on Friday, entering from and then back into Ukraine, as Russia pummelled Ukraine with the barrage. 

“Everything indicates that a Russian missile entered Polish airspace … It also left our airspace,” General Wieslaw Kukula, chief of the general staff of the Polish armed forces, told reporters. 

“The object arrived from the Ukrainian border,” Colonel Jacek Goryszewski, spokesman of the operational command of the armed forces, earlier told news channel TVN24. 

“There was intense shelling of Ukrainian territory at night so this incident could be linked to that.” 

He said the airspace violation occurred near the Polish border city of Zamosc. 

Crucial Western support

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday said Moscow’s latest missile strikes on Ukraine showed Russian President Vladimir “Putin will stop at nothing to achieve his aim of eradicating freedom and democracy”.

“We will not let him win. We must continue to stand with Ukraine – for as long as it takes,” he added on X, formerly Twitter.

On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the United States for releasing the last remaining package of weapons available for Ukraine under existing authorisation, as uncertainty surrounds further aid to his war-torn country.

Zelensky had warned that any change in policy from the US – Kyiv’s main backer – could have a strong impact on the course of the war.

“I thank President Joe Biden, Congress, and the American people for the $250 million military aid package announced yesterday,” Zelensky said on social media.

In an interview published on Friday, Christian Freuding, a German general who oversees the German army’s support for Kyiv, said Russia was severely weakened but was showing greater “resilience” than Western allies had expected at the start of the war.

“We perhaps did not see, or did not want to see, that they are in a position to continue to be supplied by allies,” he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters, AP)

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How Houthi rebels are threatening global trade nexus on Red Sea

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The U.S. is mustering an international armada to deter Iranian-backed Houthi militias from Yemen from attacking shipping in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways for global trade, including energy cargos.

The Houthis’ drone and missile attacks are ostensibly a response to the war between Israel and Hamas, but fears are growing that the broader world economy could be disrupted as commercial vessels are forced to reroute.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held a videoconference with 43 countries, the EU and NATO, telling them that “attacks had already impacted the global economy and would continue to threaten commercial shipping if the international community did not come together to address the issue collectively.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. announced an international security effort dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian that listed the U.K., Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain as participants. Madrid, however, said it wouldn’t take part. 

The Houthis were quick to respond. 

“Even if America succeeds in mobilizing the entire world, our military operations will not stop unless the genocide crimes in Gaza stop and allow food, medicine, and fuel to enter its besieged population, no matter the sacrifices it costs us,” said Mohammed Al-Bukaiti, a member of the Ansar Allah political bureau, in a post on X

Here’s what you need to know about the Red Sea crisis.

1. Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships?

International observers have put the blame for the hijackings, missiles and drone attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have stepped up their attacks since the Israel-Hamas war started. The Shi’ite Islamist group is part of the so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and is armed by Tehran. Almost certainly due to Iranian support with ballistics, the Houthis have directly targeted Israel since the beginning of the war, firing missiles and drones up the Red Sea toward the resort of Eilat.

The Houthis have been embroiled in Yemen’s long-running civil war and have been locked in combat with an intervention force in the country led by Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have claimed several major strikes against high-value energy installations in Saudi Arabia over the past years, but many international observers have identified some of their bigger claims as implausible, seeing the Houthis as a smokescreen for direct Iranian action against its arch enemy Riyadh.

After first firing drones and cruise missiles at Israel, the rebels are now targeting commercial vessels it deems linked to Israel. The Houthis have launched about 100 drone and ballistic missile attacks against 10 commercial vessels, the U.S. Department of Defense said on Tuesday

As a result, some of the world’s largest shipping companies, including Italian-Swiss MSC, Danish giant Maersk and France’s CMA CGM, were forced to reroute to avoid being targeted. BP also paused shipping through the Red Sea. 

2. Why is the Red Sea so important?

The Bab el-Mandeb (Gate of Lamentation) strait between Djibouti and Yemen where the Houthis have been attacking vessels marks the southern entrance to the Red Sea, which connects to the Suez Canal and is a crucial link between Europe and Asia. 

Estimate are that 12 to 15 percent passes of global trade takes this route, representing 30 percent of global container traffic. Some 7 percent to 10 percent of the world’s oil and 8 percent of liquefied natural gas are also shipped through the same waterway. 

Now that the strait is closed, “alternatives require additional cost, additional delay, and don’t sit with the integrated supply chain that already exists,” said Marco Forgione, director general with the Institute of Export and International Trade.

Diverting ships around Africa adds up to two weeks to journey times, creating additional cost and congestion at ports.

3. What is the West doing about it?

Over the weekend, the American destroyer USS Carney and U.K. destroyer HMS Diamond shot down over a dozen drones. Earlier this month, the French FREMM multi-mission frigate Languedoc also intercepted three drones, including with Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles. 

Now, Washington is seeking to lead an international operation to ramp up efforts against the Iran-backed group, under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and its Task Force 153. 

“It’s a reinsurance operation for commercial ships,” said Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), adding it’s still unclear whether the operation is about escorting commercial vessels or pooling air defense capabilities to fight against drones and ballistic missiles. 

4. Who is taking part?

On Tuesday, the U.K. announced HMS Diamond would be deployed as part of the U.S.-led operation.

After a video meeting between Austin and Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, Italy also agreed to join and said it would deploy the Virginio Fasan frigate, a 144-meter military vessel equipped with Aster 30 and 15 long-range missiles. The ship was scheduled to begin patrolling the Red Sea as part of the European anti-piracy Atalanta operation by February but is now expected to transit the Suez Canal on December 24.

France didn’t explicitly say whether Paris was in or out, but French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told lawmakers on Tuesday that the U.S. initiative is “interesting” because it allows intelligence sharing.

“France already has a strong presence in the region,” he added, referring to the EU’s Atalanta and Agénor operations.  

However, Spain — despite being listed as a participant by Washington — said it will only take part if NATO or the EU decide to do so, and not “unilaterally,” according to El País, citing the government.

5. Who isn’t?

Lecornu insisted regional powers such as Saudi Arabia should be included in the coalition and said he would address the issue with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, in a meeting in Paris on Tuesday evening. 

According to Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a number of Middle Eastern allies appear reluctant to take part.

“Where’s Egypt? Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is the United Arab Emirates?” he asked, warning that via its Houthi allies Iran is seeking to divide the West and its regional allies and worsen tensions around the Israel-Hamas war.

China also has a base in Djibouti where it has warships, although it isn’t in the coalition.

6. What do the Red Sea attacks mean for global trade?

While a fully-fledged economic crisis is not on the horizon yet, what’s happening in the Red Sea could lead to price increases.

“The situation is concerning in every aspect — particularly in terms of energy, oil and gas,” said Fotios Katsoulas, lead tanker analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“Demand for [maritime] fuel is already expected to increase up to 5 percent,” he said, and “higher fuel prices, higher costs for shipping, higher insurance premiums” ultimately mean higher costs for consumers. “There are even vessels already in the Red Sea that are considering passing back through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, even if they’d have to pay half a million dollars to do so.”

John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, said that while “there will be an impact in terms of the price of commodities at your supermarket checkout” and there may be an impact on oil prices, “there is still shipping that is transiting the Red Sea.” 

This is not “a total disruption” comparable to the days-long blockage of the canal in 2021 by the Ever Given container ship, he argued. 

Forgione, however, said he was “concerned that we may end up with a de facto blockade of the Suez Canal, because the Houthi rebels have a very clear agenda.”

7. Why are drones so hard to fight?

The way the Houthis operate raises challenges for Western naval forces, as they’re fending off cheap drones with ultra-expensive equipment. 

Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles — the ones fired by the French Languedoc frigate — are estimated to cost more than €1 million each while Iran-made Shahed-type drones, likely used by the Houthis, cost barely $20,000. 

“When you kill a Shahed with an Aster, it’s really the Shahed that has killed the Aster,” France’s chief of defense staff, General Thierry Burkhard, said at a conference in Paris earlier this month. 

However, if the Shahed hits a commercial vessel or a warship, the cost would be a lot higher.

“The advantage of forming a coalition is that we can share the threats that could befall boats,” IFRI’s Fayet said. “There’s an awareness now that [the Houthis] are a real threat, and that they’re able to maintain the effort over time.”  

With reporting by Laura Kayali, Antonia Zimmermann, Gabriel Gavin, Tommaso Lecca, Joshua Posaner and Geoffrey Smith.

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Israel’s appetite for high-tech weapons highlights a Biden policy gap

Within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, a Silicon Valley drone company called Skydio began receiving emails from the Israeli military. The requests were for the company’s short-range reconnaissance drones — small flying vehicles used by the U.S. Army to navigate obstacles autonomously and produce 3D scans of complex structures like buildings.

The company said yes. In the three weeks since the attack, Skydio has sent more than 100 drones to the Israeli Defense Forces, with more to come, according to Mark Valentine, the Skydio executive in charge of government contracts.

Skydio isn’t the only American tech company fielding orders. Israel’s ferocious campaign to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip is creating new demand for cutting-edge defense technology — often supplied directly by newer, smaller manufacturers, outside the traditional nation-to-nation negotiations for military supplies.

Already, Israel is using self-piloting drones from Shield AI for close-quarters indoor combat and has reportedly requested 200 Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones from another U.S. company, according to DefenseScoop. Jon Gruen, CEO of Fortem Technologies, which supplied Ukrainian forces with radar and autonomous anti-drone aircraft, said he was having “early-stage conversations” with Israelis about whether the company’s AI systems could work in the dense, urban environments in Gaza.

This surge of interest echoes the one driven by the even larger conflict in Ukraine, which has been a proving ground for new AI-powered defense technology — much of it ordered by the Ukrainian government directly from U.S. tech companies.

AI ethicists have raised concerns about the Israeli military’s use of AI-driven technologies to target Palestinians, pointing to reports that the army used AI to strike more than 11,000 targets in Gaza since Hamas militants launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct 7.

The Israeli defense ministry did not elaborate in response to questions about its use of AI.

These sophisticated platforms also pose a new challenge for the Biden administration. On Nov. 13, the U.S. began implementing a new foreign policy to govern the responsible military use of such technologies. The policy, first unveiled in the Hague in February and endorsed by 45 other countries, is an effort to keep the military use of AI and autonomous systems within the international law of war.

But neither Israel nor Ukraine are signatories, leaving a growing hole in the young effort to keep high-tech weapons operating within agreed-upon lines.

Asked about Israel’s compliance with the U.S.-led declaration on military AI, a spokesperson for the State Department said “it is too early” to draw conclusions about why some countries have not endorsed the document, or to suggest that non-endorsing countries disagree with the declaration or will not adhere to its principles.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, said in an interview that “it’s very difficult” to coordinate international agreement between nations on the military use of AI for two reasons: “One is that the technology is evolving so quickly that the description constraints you put on it today may no longer may not be relevant five years from now because the technology will be so different. The other thing is that so much of this technology is civilian, that it’s hard to restrict military development without also affecting civilian development.”

In Gaza, drones are being largely used for surveillance, scouting locations and looking for militants without risking soldiers’ lives, according to Israeli and U.S. military technology developers and observers interviewed for this story.

Israel discloses few specifics of how it uses this technology, and some worry the Israeli military is using unreliable AI recommendation systems to identify targets for lethal operations.

Ukrainian forces have used experimental AI systems to identify Russian soldiers, weapons and unit positions from social media and satellite feeds.

Observers say that Israel is a particularly fast-moving theater for new weaponry because it has a technically sophisticated military, large budget, and — crucially — close existing ties to the U.S. tech industry.

“The difference, now maybe more than ever, is the speed at which technology can move and the willingness of suppliers of that technology to deal directly with Israel,” said Arun Seraphin, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Institute for Emerging Technologies.

Though the weapons trade is subject to scrutiny and regulation, autonomous systems also raise special challenges. Unlike traditional military hardware, buyers are able to reconfigure these smart platforms for their own needs, adding a layer of inscrutability to how these systems are used.

While many of the U.S.-built, AI-enabled drones sent to Israel are not armed and not programmed by the manufacturers to identify specific vehicles or people, these airborne robots are designed to leave room for military customers to run their own custom software, which they often prefer to do, multiple manufacturers told POLITICO.

Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng confirmed that users are able to customize the Nova 2 drones that the IDF is using to search for barricaded shooters and civilians in buildings targeted by Hamas fighters.

Matt Mahmoudi, who authored Amnesty International’s May report documenting Israel’s use of facial recognition systems in Palestinian territories, told POLITICO that historically, U.S. technology companies contracting with Israeli defense authorities have had little insight or control over how their products are used by the Israeli government, pointing to several instances of the Israeli military running its own AI software on hardware imported from other countries to closely monitor the movement of Palestinians.

Complicating the issue are the blurred lines between military and non-military technology. In the industry, the term is “dual-use” — a system, like a drone-swarm equipped with computer-vision, that might be used for commercial purposes but could also be deployed in combat.

The Technology Policy Lab at the Center for a New American Security writes that “dual-use technologies are more difficult to regulate at both the national and international levels” and notes that in order for the U.S. to best apply export controls, it “requires complementary commitment from technology-leading allies and partners.”

Exportable military-use AI systems can run the gamut from commercial products to autonomous weapons. Even in cases where AI-enabled systems are explicitly designed as weapons, meaning U.S. authorities are required by law to monitor the transfer of these systems to another country, the State Department only recently adopted policies to monitor civilian harm caused by these weapons, in response to Congressional pressure.

But enforcement is still a question mark: Josh Paul, a former State Department official, wrote that a planned report on the policy’s implementation was canceled because the department wanted to avoid any debate on civilian harm risks in Gaza from U.S. weapons transfers to Israel.

A Skydio spokesperson said the company is currently not aware of any users breaching its code of conduct and would “take appropriate measures” to mitigate the misuse of its drones. A Shield AI spokesperson said the company is confident its products are not being used to violate humanitarian norms in Israel and “would not support” the unethical use of its products.

In response to queries about whether the U.S. government is able to closely monitor high-tech defense platforms sent by smaller companies to Israel or Ukraine, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it was restricted from publicly commenting or confirming the details of commercially licensed defense trade activity.

Some observers point out that the Pentagon derives some benefit from watching new systems tested elsewhere.

“The great value for the United States is we’re getting to field test all this new stuff,” said CSIS’s Cancian — a process that takes much longer in peacetime environments and allows the Pentagon to place its bets on novel technologies with more confidence, he added.

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Biden calls US allies to ‘coordinate’ support for Ukraine

US President Joe Biden called key allies on Tuesday to “coordinate” support for Ukraine, the White House said. Western allies have raised concerns on the subject after Republican hardliners in Congress derailed US funding for Kyiv. The news came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited frontline areas in eastern Ukraine. Read our liveblog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

This liveblog is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage on the war in Ukraine, please click here.

8:18pm: Russia summons Moldova ambassador in media row

Moscow on Tuesday summoned Moldova‘s ambassador to protest against what it called “politically-motivated persecution” of Russian-language media in the pro-Western country.

In mid-September, Moldova expelled the country chief of Russia’s state news agency Sputnik, accusing the outlet of spreading “propaganda and disinformation”.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that the expulsion of Moldova’s Sputnik bureau chief was part of an ongoing campaign of “politically motivated persecution” of Russian-language media in Moldova.

Moscow said that a number of people who are involved in restricting “freedom of speech and the rights of Russian journalists in Moldova” will be banned from entering the country.

8:15pm: Russia says it shot down Ukrainian missile off Crimea coast

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Tuesday evening it had shot down a Ukrainian missile off the Crimea coast.

According to the statement, Russian air defence systems downed a Ukrainian Neptun missile over the north-western part of the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimean peninsula.

7:50pm: US aid for Ukraine to last ‘couple of months’ without funding, White House says

US aid for Ukraine‘s fight against Russia will run out in “a couple of months” if Republican hardliners fail to pass new funds for Kyiv, the White House said Tuesday.

“You’re talking perhaps a couple of months or so, roughly,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told a briefing.

7:30pm: White House warns ‘time is not our friend’ on Ukraine aid

The White House warned on Tuesday that time is running out to fund Ukraine‘s fight against Russia’s invasion, after hardline Republicans in Congress blocked US aid for Kyiv.

“Time is not our friend. We have enough funding authorities to meet Ukraine’s battlefields needs for a bit longer, but we need Congress to act,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

President Joe Biden told US allies in a call earlier Tuesday that he was “confident that we’re going to continue to have bipartisan and bicameral support” for aid, Kirby added.

6:50pm: Ukraine’s troops advance on southern front, top general says

One of Ukraine’s top generals said on Tuesday that his forces were advancing in the south, one of two theatres of their counteroffensive to evict Russian occupation forces, but offered few details of their gains.

“In the Tavria sector, there has been an advance by the defence forces,” General Oleksander Tarnavskyi said in a post on Telegram, using the military’s name for the southern front.

Tarnavskyi, head of the southern group of forces, said troops had conducted 1,198 assignments in the past 24 hours, with Russian forces sustaining losses of 261 men and a further 10 being taken prisoner.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces, in its evening report, said offensive operations were proceeding in the east and south, with little elaboration.

It reported Russian air strikes in southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, the focus of the drive south to the Sea of Azov. The report also said Ukrainian forces had repelled Russian attacks in areas of Donetsk region already recaptured by Kyiv and around the long-contested town of Maryinka further west.

Military analysts have spoken in the past week of Ukrainian forces consolidating positions around the village of Verbove on their southward drive.

5:59pm: PM Sunak reaffirms UK support to Ukraine

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told G7 and NATO leaders on Tuesday that Britain was prepared to support Ukraine with military, humanitarian and economic assistance “for as long as it takes,” his office said in a readout of a call.

“He (Prime Minister Rishi Sunak) outlined the UK’s ongoing military, humanitarian and economic assistance to Ukraine and stressed that this support will continue for as long as it takes,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statment.

US President Joe Biden convened the call amid concerns that support for Kyiv’s war effort against Russia was fading, especially in the United States, where Congress excluded aid to Ukraine from an emergency bill to prevent a partial government shutdown.

5:11pm: Biden assured partners of continued support for Ukraine, Poland’s Duda says

United States President Joe Biden assured leaders of G7 and European states of Washington’s continued support for Ukraine during a video conference, the Polish president said on Tuesday.

“He assured us that support for aid given to Ukraine continues, especially military aid. He said he would secure this support in Congress,” Andrzej Duda told a news conference.

4:50pm: Biden calls US allies on support for Ukraine, White House says

President Joe Biden called key allies on Tuesday to “coordinate” support for Ukraine, the White House said, amid concerns in Western capitals after Republican hardliners derailed US funding for Kyiv.

“President Biden convened a call this morning with allies and partners to coordinate our ongoing support for Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement, adding that it would give details of the call later.

3:06pm: Two more vessels head to Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa, local lawmaker says

Two vessels sailing under the flags of the Marshall Islands and Cameroon are heading towards the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa, a local Ukrainian lawmaker reported on Tuesday.

The lawmaker, Oleksiy Honcharenko, did not provide any details other than names – EQUATOR and MARANTA – but posted images of vessels on the Telegram messaging app.

A senior member of the government said on Sunday that five other ships were on their way to Ukrainian Black Sea ports using a new corridor opened for predominantly agricultural exports following Russia’s decision to quit a UN-brokered wartime deal on safe shipments.

2:01pm: Ukraine’s Zelensky visiting eastern front line

President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday said that he was visiting frontline areas in eastern Ukraine where Russian forces have been pressuring Kyiv’s forces.

“Today we are visiting our brigades performing combat missions in one of the hottest areas (of the front) – Kupiansk-Lyman,” Zelensky said in a statement on social media.

12:05pm: Russia vows no new mobilisation

“There are no plans for an additional mobilisation” of Russian men to fight in Ukraine as more than 335,000 have signed up so far this year to fight in the armed forces or voluntary units, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told top generals in a meeting broadcast on state television Tuesday.

“The armed forces have the necessary number of military personnel to conduct the special military operation,” he said, adding that, since the start of the year, “more than 335,000 people have entered military service under contract and in volunteer formations”.

In September alone, more than 50,000 people signed up, he said.

Putin ordered a “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 reservists in September last year, prompting hundreds of thousands of young men to flee Russia to avoid being sent to fight.

Putin has repeatedly said there is no need to repeat the mobilisation, which some Russian officials say was a mistake as it prompted so many to leave.

11:57am: Ukraine moves toward flexible currency to improve economy

Ukraine’s central bank said it would allow controlled currency fluctuations starting Tuesday, easing wartime restrictions to boost the economy.

At the beginning of the war Kyiv suspended all currency trading, and set a fixed exchange rate to defend its currency – the hryvnia – and stabilise the markets.

“The National Bank of Ukraine is implementing managed exchange rate flexibility, which will strengthen the stability of the foreign exchange market and the economy,” the central bank said in a statement.

With inflation slowing down and international reserves “sufficiently high for a long time” it said the time was now right to act.

The hryvnia had been pegged at around 29 to the dollar at the beginning of the war, but it devalued in July 2022 to around 36.

11:33am: Russia’s Gazprom says European energy security system unstable

Russian energy giant Gazprom said on Tuesday that Europe, which used to be its main source of revenue, is short of natural gas and may face challenges, more than a year after the Nord Stream pipelines were damaged by mysterious blasts.

Gazprom’s gas exports almost halved last year to 100.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) due to political fallout with Europe over Ukraine and after the undersea Nord Stream pipelines, the largest single gas exporting route for Russia to European market, were blown up in September 2022.

“The fact that the systemic deficit has not gone away is manifested not only by the higher price level in 2023 compared to the pre-Covid years, but also by the persistence of a stable contango in the natural gas market,” Sergei Komlev and Alexander Shapin, Gazprom’s senior managers, said in an inhouse magazine.

Contango is a market structure in which longer-dated futures trade at a premium that encourages traders to keep the commodity in storage for more profitable resale in the future.

“This price behaviour means that, according to market participants, the energy security system in Europe, built in an emergency mode, is unstable and faces new challenges,” the Gazprom managers said.

11:31am: Ukraine aims to borrow $700 million from World Bank to support agriculture

Ukraine’s government started talks with the World Bank on Tuesday on a $700 million loan for emergency support to the agricultural sector this year and next, the farm ministry said.

The funds were required for small farmers and agricultural and food producers, the ministry said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app.

The agricultural sector is a key driver for Ukraine’s economy but has been hit hard by Russia’s invasion.

11:30am: Kyiv, Warsaw agree to speed up Ukrainian grain transit

Warsaw and Kyiv announced on Tuesday they had agreed to speed up the transit of Ukrainian cereal exports through Poland to third countries, a first step in resolving their “grain war”.

The three-nation agreement between Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania means that Ukrainian grain exports – destined for markets in Africa and the Middle East in particular – will be taken directly through Poland instead of first being checked at the Poland-Ukraine border.

“From tomorrow, grains that transit (to world markets) via Lithuania will undergo checks at a Lithuanian port and not at the Poland-Ukraine border,” Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus told journalists.

After Russia’s invasion prevented Ukraine using its traditional Black Sea routes to export grain to world markets, the crops were sent by land through the European Union. But because of logistical issues, grain began piling up in EU states neighbouring Ukraine and driving down local prices.

Brussels allowed several countries to impose a temporary embargo on Ukrainian grains.

But when it ended those restrictions, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia extended the ban, causing a diplomatic spat between Kyiv and its allies.

7:44am: Ukraine downs 29 Russia-launched drones, one cruise missile

Ukraine has destroyed 29 of 31 drones and one cruise missile launched by Russia overnight, most of them targeting the regions of Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk, its air force said.

The attacks came in several waves and lasted more than three hours.

6:50am: Ukraine shells Russian village with cluster munitions, Russian official says

Ukraine has fired cluster munitions at a Russian village near the Ukrainian border, damaging several houses, the governor of Russia’s Bryansk region said.

According to preliminary information, there were no casualties in the shelling of the village of Klimovo, Governor Alexander Bogomaz said on the Telegram messaging app.

The governor’s statement, which was made without providing any visual evidence, could not immediately be independently verified.

There was no immediate comment from Ukraine.

Ukraine has received cluster munitions from the United States, but has pledged to use them only to dislodge concentrations of enemy soldiers.

Russian officials in Bryansk and other regions bordering Ukraine have repeatedly accused Kyiv of an indiscriminate shelling by Ukraine’s armed forces.

3:44am: US aid cuts would be ‘devastating’ for Ukraine soldiers, experts say

Ukraine’s troops would soon run short of essential ammunition and equipment if Republican hardliners succeed in stopping US military aid, undermining operations on the ground and reducing their ability to defend against Russian strikes, experts say.

Top American officials have repeatedly insisted the United States would back Kyiv for “as long as it takes”, and Washington has committed more than $43 billion in security aid since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 – over half the total from all Western donors.

But Republican opposition led Congress to remove new funding for Ukraine from a recent compromise bill to avoid a US government shutdown, highlighting that continued American support is not guaranteed.

“It would be devastating for the Ukrainians” if US aid is halted, said Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

1:50am: Ukraine to build first underground school in Kharkiv, says official

Ukraine’s eastern metropolis of Kharkiv will build the country’s first fully underground school to shield pupils from Russia’s frequent bomb and missile attacks, the city’s mayor said.

“Such a shelter will enable thousands of Kharkiv children to continue their safe face-to-face education even during missile threats,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

While many schools in the frontline regions have been forced to teach online throughout the war, Kharkiv has organised some 60 separate classrooms throughout its metro stations before the school year that started September 1, creating space for more than 1,000 children to study there.

Key developments from Monday, October 2:

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday told a joint press briefing with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba that he had proposed a new €5 billion bilateral envelope to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a meeting of all 27 EU foreign ministers in Kyiv that victory “directly depends on our cooperation”.

Ukrainian grain exports have fallen to 6.68 million metric tons so far in the 2023/24 July-June season from 8.99 million tons in the same period of 2022/23, according to agriculture ministry data.

Read yesterday’s live blog to see how the day’s events unfolded.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, and Reuters)

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Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.

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Putin claims ‘invincibility’, new drone strikes in Russia

All the latest developments from the war in Ukraine.

Putin tells children Russia is ‘invincible’

Russia is as “invincible” today as it was during the Second World War, Vladimir Putin said on Friday during a meeting with teenagers to mark the start of the new school year.


“I understood why we won the Great Patriotic War: it’s impossible to defeat a people with that kind of mindset. We were absolutely invincible and, today, we still are”, said the Russian president, in remarks broadcast on television.

Putin regularly draws parallels between the war against Nazi Germany and the offensive he has unleashed in Ukraine.

Russia claimed on Friday to have seized “key positions on high ground” near the town of Kupiansk in eastern Ukraine, a sector of the front on which its troops have been on the offensive for several weeks.

Russia has deployed major resources to regain control of the Kupiansk sector, which was recaptured by Ukraine last year, and according to Ilia Yevlach, spokesman for the Ukrainian army’s Eastern Command, 45,000 of its soldiers are massed there.

Ukrainian drones hit Kursk as Moscow repels attack

Ukrainian forces targeted Russia’s Kursk region with two drones early on Friday, damaging residential and administrative buildings, local authorities said. 

Two buildings were damaged, which emergency services were still assessing, the region’s governor Roman Starovoit wrote on Telegram. 

Russian forces downed another drone bound for Moscow on Friday morning, the capital’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin said. 

The drone was shot down just 20 kilometres southeast of central Moscow, Sobyanin wrote on Telegram, without disclosing further details. 

Moscow’s three major airports had to reschedule and cancel flights after an unidentified flying object was detected by air defences, the Russian state-run news agency TASS reported.  

Sobyanin has been vocal about expanding the Russian capital’s air defence capabilities, after repeated attacks in recent months – one even striking the Kremlin building in May.

Anger over Russian ambassador’s Nobel invitation

The invitation extended to the Russian ambassador to Sweden to attend the forthcoming Nobel Prize gala dinner caused controversy on Friday, with the Swedish prime minister openly expressing his disagreement.


“The Nobel Foundation of course invites whoever it wants. But like many others, I was very surprised to learn that Russia had been invited,” said Ulf Kristersson in a statement to AFP.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I had to deal with invitations to a prize-giving ceremony, and I understand that this upsets people in Sweden and Ukraine,” he added.

The Nobel Foundation, which organises the award ceremony and gala dinner in Stockholm, announced on Thursday that this year it would invite all the ambassadors of the countries present in Sweden and Norway.

In 2022, the Foundation decided not to invite the Russian and Belarusian ambassadors because of the war in Ukraine, and the Iranian ambassador because of the repression of the protest movement. These three representatives have been invited this year.

“It is clear that the world is becoming increasingly divided into spheres and that dialogue between divergent points of view is becoming increasingly limited”, said Vidar Helgesen, the Foundation’s Director, in a press release.


“To reverse this trend, we are extending our invitation to celebrate and understand the Nobel Prize and the importance of free science, free culture and free and peaceful societies”, he added.

A number of Swedish politicians, including environmental, centre and left-wing leaders, have said they will boycott the gala dinner because of the Russian ambassador’s invitation.

UK defence firm to speed up arms supply to Ukraine

UK arms giant BAE Systems has set up a legal body in Ukraine to speed up supplies of arms and equipment to the war-torn nation. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the firm’s chief executive Charles Woodburn on Thursday to iron out the details of the new agreement. 

“The development of our own weapons production is a top priority,” Zelenskyy wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, following Thursday’s meeting. 


He said Ukraine will be able to deploy BAE-manufactured artillery L119 and M777 systems and armoured vehicle robust CV90. 

BAE has been a large contributor to the UK’s defence supplies to Kyiv following the start of the invasion in February 2022. It is, by value, Europe’s biggest defence contractor operating in more than 40 countries across the globe. 

The defence firm, however, has not yet decided on setting up a physical office in Ukraine, despite Zelenskyy’s previous claims that Kyiv was in negotiation to do so. 

Russia unhappy with Black Sea grain deal proposal

Russia wants the West to follow “a list of actions” in addition to the United Nations chief’s new Black Sea grain proposal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had sent a new letter addressing Lavrov, hoping to revive the deal that lifted a Russian blockade and allowed Ukraine to ship almost 33,000 tons of grain at a time of growing global hunger.

But Moscow wasn’t satisfied with the letter, Lavrov hinted after a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, whose country helped broker the deal. 

“As soon as talks turn into concrete decisions, we’ll be ready to resume the Ukrainian part of the grain package that same day,” Lavrov said. 

Describing the grain deal as “quite a complicated and laborious job,” Turkey’s Fidan said when Erdogan and Putin get together they “will take a more strategic and political view.”

Guterres told UN reporters on Thursday he had written a letter to Lavrov with “a set of concrete proposals, allowing to create the conditions for the renewal of the Black Sea initiative.”

The United Nations and Turkey brokered the deal in July 2022 that allowed Ukraine to ship grain and other foodstuffs from three Black Sea ports.

A separate memorandum between the UN and Russia, following the start of the invasion, pledged to overcome obstacles to Moscow’s shipment of food and fertilizer to world markets.

Russia suspended the Black Sea grain initiative in July, calling it a lop-sided deal, repeatedly alleging Ukraine of fostering its wealthy allies in the West.

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