The Dnipro River, a new key front line for Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia

Ukraine confirmed this week that it had managed to maintain its positions along the left bank of the Dnipro River, which had been completely under Russian control. These successes suggest that a major Ukrainian counteroffensive, aimed at reclaiming Crimea, could soon be under way.

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Ukrainian soldiers appear to have successfully consolidated their positions on the left bank of the highly strategic Dnipro River, an area that was previously under Russian control, according to a November 22 update from the Institute for the Study of War, which analyses the military situation in Ukraine on a daily basis.

In a new development, the Ukrainian general staff officially congratulated themselves on Wednesday on the Ukrainian “successes” on the left bank (Crimea side) of the river. “Until a few weeks ago, Kyiv had remained very discreet about its attempted incursions into Russian-occupied territory in the Kherson region. Now the general staff are bragging about it,” says Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist on the war in Ukraine at the University of Glasgow.

New winter quarters on the Dnipro River

Ukraine’s “successes” on the Crimea side of the Dnipro River have fuelled tensions in Russia between the government and the “milbloggers”, mostly ultra-nationalist Russian military observers who discuss the conflict on social media. “Officially, Moscow repeats that all Ukrainian offensives have been halted in this region, but the ‘milbloggers’ have started to acknowledge on social media that Ukraine has made advances there,” says Sim Tack, a military analyst at the conflict monitoring company Force Analysis.

For almost a year now, the Ukrainian army has been testing Russian defences on the other side of the Dnipro River. However, before October 2023, soldiers crossing the river did not stay on the other side of it, as it was too risky to do so.

Read moreA small step across the Dnipro River, a giant leap for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

Everything seems to have changed just over a month ago following an attack on Pishchanivka and Poima, two villages located around 10 kilometres southeast of Kherson. Since then, Ukraine has been trying to set up winter quarters for a growing number of soldiers in the area. “It even seems that they have managed to take control of several villages,” says Aliyev.

Fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces has intensified along the Dnipro River, a key front line. © Graphic design studio, France Médias Monde

It is looking more and more like Ukraine is using the left bank of the Dnipro River as a new front in its counteroffensive against Russia, which began in June 2023. “The main fighting is taking place around the village of Krynky – some 30 kilometres south-east of Kherson – where the Russians still seem to be holding their positions,” says Tack.

The objective: Repelling Russian artillery

However, it is not the current fighting that is making the situation dangerous for the Russian army. Above all, Ukraine has “succeeded in securing several crossing points over the Dnipro River, enabling it to reinforce its positions and rotate troops to be more combat effective”, says Tack.

Securing a river crossing is no mean feat, as crossing rivers is one of the most complex and dangerous military operations. This is why the Dnipro River is considered one of Russia’s best defensive assets in southern Ukraine.

Ukraine can now pride itself on having removed this obstacle for at least some of its troops. “For the moment, the Ukrainians are able to provide security for small groups of infantry, accompanied by a few light vehicles, crossing the river. But the area is not yet secure enough to attempt to send in contingents of tanks or heavy artillery,” says Aliyev.

Furthermore, a major offensive cannot take place in this region without heavy military equipment, says Tack. Ukrainian troops are currently trying to clear the road that runs from east to west along the Dnipro River in the hopes of pushing the Russian artillery as far back as possible to keep any Ukrainian tanks out of range of Russian guns, should Ukraine decide to send tanks across the river.

But the Ukrainian army has not yet succeeded in doing so and is in the meantime trying to decide whether to attempt to seize new territory. In addition to having enough soldiers stationed there to do so, “the Russian troops present in this region are less well trained and equipped than those in Bakhmut and the Zaporizhzhia region, where Ukraine has concentrated its main counteroffensive effort”, says Tack.

A risky decision

However, Ukrainian soldiers do not have enough firepower to reach Crimea, the main objective of any offensive in the Kherson region. “For the time being, these attacks can still be seen as an effort to distract Russia into transferring troops to this area, which would weaken Russian defences in the Zaporizhzhia region,” says Tack.

If Russia doesn’t take the bait however, then Ukraine would have to consider the possibility of launching a major offensive. This risky decision would involve mobilising a large number of forces. “We would need at least 100 tanks and several hundred support vehicles in addition to light infantry,” says Aliyev.

Ukraine “probably does not have as many forces in reserve and would therefore be forced to transfer some of them from another part of the front”, says Aliyev. This could potentially provide Russia with opportunities for a counter-attack.

Read moreUkraine river ambush shows again Russian military is ‘not up to scratch’

What’s more, organising this type of offensive not only takes time, but also risks turning the left bank of the Dnipro River into a death trap for the Ukrainian army. Both of the experts interviewed believe that Russia is waiting for its enemy to mobilise more forces on the left side of the Dnipro River before sending troops to try to surround the Ukrainian contingent and cut off the few possibilities of retreat. “That’s why the Ukrainians are taking their time: to see how the Russians react,” says Tack.

After all, Ukraine does not have many alternatives. “The counteroffensives in Bakhmut and around Zaporizhzhia have ground to a halt and the southern part of the Kherson region currently appears to be the main opportunity to show the world that Ukraine is making progress,” says Aliyev. In other words, the Ukrainian army will be forced to take major risks if it wants to prove that the Western-backed counteroffensive has produced tangible results.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Germany hikes Ukraine military support, but is its defence-spending tilt tenable?

Germany, already Europe’s biggest supporter of Ukraine, has unveiled plans to double its military aid to Kyiv for 2024, while continuing to invest in its armed forces in order to become “the backbone of European defence”. It’s a strategy shift Berlin hopes to maintain over the long term, but counting on public support in a difficult economic context might make it hard to sustain.

As the Ukraine war grinds on, and with the Israel-Hamas war grabbing international attention, many Ukrainians fear that their existential struggle against Russia will be overlooked. The looming 2024 US election campaign is doing nothing to assuage their anxieties. But Kyiv can count on the support of Germany, which is set to double its military aid to Ukraine.

In an interview with German broadcaster ARD, Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said the move sent a “strong signal to Ukraine that we will not leave them in the lurch”.

The Ukraine military aid hike from €4 billion to €8 billion would mean Germany’s annual budget allocation would be enough to last Ukraine the entire year, noted Pistorius. The budget boost, he told ARD, was a response to this year’s experience, “which showed that planned amounts were quickly exhausted” by Ukraine’s major military needs.

The €8 billion military aid announcement was a marked shift from Germany’s infamous “5,000 protective helmets” offering just weeks before Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. It was a clear sign of a change in German policy, which was once considered a weak link in the Western response to Russian aggression due to its dependence on cheap Russian energy and its postwar commitment to pacifism.

From weak link to ‘backbone’ of European defence

Back in January 2022, when Ukraine, faced with an imminent invasion, turned to NATO for military help, the US and UK immediately agreed to provide Kyiv with defensive weapons.

When Germany, Europe’s largest economy, offered just 5,000 protective helmets, it was the subject of much scorn across Ukraine, prompting Kyiv’s mayor to publicly ask if the next delivery would be pillows.

“Military aid to Ukraine gave rise to a particularly difficult debate in Germany, for both historical and economic reasons,” noted Éric-André Martin from the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). “Not only is it the country’s policy not to supply arms to a country at war, but German officials were also very uncomfortable with the idea of opposing Russia, which supplied them with 50% of their gas.”

Read moreSchroeder’s Russia ties cast a shadow over Scholz’s trip to Moscow

A year after the helmet affair, Christine Lambrecht from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) resigned as Germany’s defence minister. Her New Year’s Eve address, when she said the Russian invasion gave her the chance for “many encounters with great and interesting people” was one gaffe too many, undermining Germany’s credibility on the international stage.

Then came the controversy surrounding the delivery of German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Just as Kyiv was putting up a valiant offensive against its giant invader, Germany not only refused to supply the much-needed tanks, it opposed re-exporting tanks purchased by its allies to Ukraine.

Finally, after Scholz visited Washington and convinced US President Joe Biden to send American Abrams tanks, the German chancellor yielded to pressure. In a January 25, 2023 speech to parliament, Scholz announced that Germany would be sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Read moreUK offers tanks in Ukraine’s hour of need, but will Germany follow suit?

“Germany was not the only European country afraid of adding fuel to the fire by delivering advanced military equipment to Ukraine to fight Russia. But it is true that for a long time it was particularly cautious,” said Gaspard Schnitzler, research director at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

“This difficulty in making decisions is linked to Germany’s political configuration,” said Schnitzler, noting that Scholz’s governing coalition includes three political parties “with very different perspectives, to a policy of drastic export controls, and also to the German constitution, adopted after the Second World War to avoid a concentration of power. Decisions are taken collegially, and therefore take longer to reach, which was difficult for its partners to understand. But it can also be argued that once they are made, they are more definitive.”

Almost two years after the start of the war, Germany has gradually emerged as Kyiv’s leading military supporter in Europe. According to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine support tracker, Berlin has committed over €17.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine since January 24, 2022. This is certainly not on a par with Washington’s €42 billion, but it is more than twice the UK’s investment (7 billion) and 34 times that of France.

This investment has increased considerably over the past year, with the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks, Gepard air defence systems and shells.

“Today, Germany wants to be exemplary in its support for Ukraine, to make up for its hesitations at the start of the war, but also its policy of economic openness towards Russia. The signing of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline after the [2014] annexation of Crimea was very badly received by Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland,” explained Schnitzler.

Bundeswehr on the rise

For Germany, this massive support for Ukraine is first and foremost a question of national security. Realising the scale of the threat to its own security posed by Russia’s conquest of Ukraine, Berlin began a radical military rearmament shift soon after the war erupted, breaking with decades of underinvestment.

After a February 2022 announcement of a special fund of €100 billion over five years to modernise the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, Berlin adopted its first-ever “National Security Strategy” in June. On November 9, Pistorius unveiled his defence policy guidelines, promising to make Germany “the backbone of deterrence and collective defence in Europe”.

“The amount announced may seem very substantial, but it’s important to understand that this is above all a catch-up investment,” stressed Martin.

“Germany was well below NATO’s commitments, which set defence spending at 2% of GDP. It was something of a freeloader in its contribution to European defence. In the name of budgetary stability, it shifted the burden to other members of the Alliance, and in particular the US, which led to sharp tensions with Donald Trump,” Martin added.

With this strategic turnaround, Berlin intends to transform its defence policy for the long term. The aim is to reassure the US, and to offer a hierarchical military framework within NATO into which European countries with fewer resources can integrate their battalions.

A change of gear in times of crisis

According to Pistorius, Germany’s status as Europe’s largest economy gives it a special “responsibility” to defend the bloc, which it now intends to assume.

However, this ambitious transformation comes at a time of economic turbulence. Germany, which had based its energy strategy on supplies of cheap Russian gas, is in the front line of the inflationary crisis that has hit the continent since the outbreak of the Ukraine war and the introduction of sanctions against Moscow.

“The country relied on Russian energy to implement its transition to renewables. Now it has to source its energy elsewhere, and at a much higher cost. Add to this the slow pace of industrial transition, as Germany has invested little in electric vehicles, and its automotive sector is losing competitiveness to the Chinese,” explained Martin.

Against this backdrop, at the beginning of October, the IMF revised its forecasts for the German economy’s contraction, now predicting a drop in GDP of -0.5% versus the previous -0.3% for 2023, by far the worst annual performance of the bloc’s economies.

“The special fund of €100 billion over five years to finance the army pales in comparison with Germany’s GDP of €4,000 billion. The same applies to the envelope dedicated to Ukraine support. But the difficulty is that for these investments to be effective, they must be sustained over time,” said Martin. “If the economic difficulties persist and have too heavy an impact on German households, the government could be forced to reassess its budgetary choices.”

“The Russian invasion has broken the taboo on the issue of national defence in Germany,” said Schnitzler. “The vast majority of Germans are in favour of supporting Ukraine, despite the cost, and are now aware of the importance of strengthening their army.”

Schnitzler nevertheless believes that, despite favourable public opinion, several questions about Berlin’s ability to maintain this policy persist.

“We’re still feeling our way around the financing of German rearmament. To be sustainable, these investments need to be gradually shifted to the defence budget, but for the time being everything is still based on the special €100 billion fund.

Finally, it’s hard to predict what will happen to this policy once the war in Ukraine is over. Once the immediate threat has been averted, it’s always harder to justify high levels of military spending to the public.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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How Ukraine’s secret agents re-learned the art of shadow warfare

New revelations in the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in September 2022 have strengthened the case for Kyiv’s involvement, with a controversial Ukrainian secret agent alleged to have been the brains behind the operation. Although Kyiv continues to deny responsibility, there is little doubt that the Ukrainian intelligence services are playing a very special role in the war against Russia.

New “proof” of Ukrainian involvement in the sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea was published by the Washington Post and German magazine Der Spiegel on Saturday November 11. The two publications claimed to have identified the Ukrainian “mastermind” behind the explosive operation.

Roman Chervinsky, a veteran Ukrainian spy, is alleged to have “coordinated” the team of six saboteurs suspected of setting off explosive charges near the Nord Stream pipelines on September 26, 2022, several sources – “both Ukrainian and among the international teams of security experts connected to this case” – told the two publications, according to Der Spiegel.

‘Hothead’ or ‘patriot’?

This 48-year-old expert in “clandestine actions” was a controversial figure even before his name came up in the pipeline affair. Chervinsky has been in pre-trial detention in Kyiv since April 2023, awaiting trial for his involvement in a high-risk operation that ended in disaster for Ukraine’s intelligence services.

Chervinsky is accused of having attempted to recruit a Russian pilot in the summer of 2022 amid a broader campaign to lure potential defectors. It soon became clear that the pilot remained only too loyal to Moscow. Instead of flying to Ukraine as promised, he apparently provided the coordinates of a military airport to the Russians, who wasted no time in bombing it. At that time, Chervinsky had joined the Ukrainian army’s ‘special forces’, specialists in intelligence and sabotage operations.

Read moreNord Stream 2: Russia-Germany gas pipeline becomes a geopolitical lever

This failure pushed the Ukrainian authorities to distance themselves from their spy, claiming that he had gone off on his own and exceeded his prerogatives. Since then, Chervinsky has been seen by some Ukrainians as a “risk-taker” who endangers national security. His defenders, however, hail him as a “great patriot” who pulled off one of the Ukraininan intelligence services’ greatest coups in 2019 after he had succeeded in capturing a “Russian witness” supposedly in possession of evidence showing Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in the skies over the Donbas in 2014.

When contacted for comment by the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, Chervinsky, speaking through his lawyers, accused “Russian propaganda” of trying to frame him for the Nord Stream sabotage. Kyiv, for its part, refused to comment on the “revelations” published by the two Western media outlets.

These new developments are a reminder that behind the trench warfare taking place in Ukraine, a shadow war is also being fought between the countries’ intelligence services. Because, notwithstanding the imbroglio behind Chervinsky’s alleged involvement, the fact remains that, faced with the vast Russian spy machine, Ukraine’s secret agents “have shown themselves to be up to the task”, according to Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian security issues and a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a think-tank based in Washington, DC.

“Their actions have a strategic impact on the course of the conflict,” he said.

Soviet Union’s long shadow

Hawn said that the Ukrainian intelligence services seemed to have come a long way since their dark days following the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Before 2014, they were really kind of a joke,” he said. “The SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] was used to spy on political enemies – and was corrupt.”

These criticisms apply equally to the two main intelligence agencies, the SBU, the counter-espionage service that reports to the interior ministry, and the GUR, the military intelligence agency, he said.

After the pro-European Maidan revolution in 2014 and Kyiv’s geopolitical slide to the West, the situation changed. The wave of state modernisation that swept the country has not left the intelligence services behind, even if their Soviet heritage – Ukraine had been the KGB’s second-most important centre of operations in the former Soviet republics – has made the task all the more difficult.

One of the main innovations of the past decade has been the addition of a third branch to Ukraine’s burgeoning espionage. In 2016, the army created its own agency, the Special Operations Forces (SSO), supposed to be made up of elite fighters.

Chervinsky’s career shows the extent to which the three services can step on each other’s toes. As Der Spiegel points out, the spy held similar positions in both the SUB and the GUR before joining the special forces.

Psychological games

Since Russia’s full-scale offensive in February 2022, the operations attributed to Ukrainian agents have shown a mode of operations inspired by Western methods combined “with an almost suicidal approach reminiscent of what KGB agents were ready to do to fulfill their mission”, said Jenny Mathers, a specialist in Russian intelligence services at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

For her, the most surprising operation was the August 2022 assassination of Daria Dugina, the daughter of ultranationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, which the US believes to have been the work of Ukrainian agents.

“It’s kind of a strange use of precious resources to go after someone like Dugina, who isn’t a prime war target per se,” Mathers said.

At first glance, the sabotage operations launched against the Crimean Bridge and the assassination on Russian soil of submarine commander Vladislav Rzhitsky in July 2023, who was accused of having ordered a missile strike on a Ukrainian town that saw more than 20 civilian deaths, seem to be more in line with the war’s objectives.

But “the big picture seems to be that they are dividing their resources between targets that clearly disrupt the war effort … and other targets with a less direct goal”, Mathers said.

“It’s more about demonstrations of force, showing that they can hit close to Putin’s inner circle. A bit of a psychological game with Russia,” she said.

The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline could be a part of this same logic: proving that the Ukrainian secret services can hit Russian interests, no matter where.

For Mathers, it is still too early to evaluate the impact of all these operations on the course of the conflict. But even if “it won’t be decisive, like a tank breaking the defense line, it will have a strategic effect”, Hawn said: Ukraine’s spies are a constant irritant for the Russians, never letting them forget that the war is also being fought far from the front lines.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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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.

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Second Ukraine wheat shipment reaches Turkey despite Russian threats

A second shipment of Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on Sunday, according to maritime traffic monitoring sites, despite Russian threats to attack boats heading to or from its neighbour and enemy. Read our blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

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

1:51pm: Russian airstrikes kill two people, wound three more in southern Ukraine

Russian airstrikes on Sunday killed two people and wounded three others in southern Ukraine’s Kherson province, the region’s governor reported Sunday as the war in Ukraine entered its 20th month.

According to Governor Oleksandr Prokudin, Russian forces struck the city of Beryslav, destroying an unspecified number of private homes. A woman was killed and three people were wounded, including a police officer, he said.

Another airstrike also killed a 67-year-old man in the village of Lvove, Prokudin said, without specifying the type of weapons used in the attack.

Both of the communities hit are located in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Kherson region, where the Dnipro River that bisects the province has marked a battle line since Russian troops withdrew across it in November 2022, a retreat that boosted the invaded country’s morale.

12:26pm: Putin critic Kara-Murza brought to Siberian penal colony

Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, jailed for 25 years on treason charges and for denouncing Moscow’s Ukraine offensive, has arrived to serve his sentence at a maximum-security Siberian prison, his lawyer said Sunday.

Kara-Murza – a dual Russian-British citizen – was handed the unprecedentedly long sentence in April, with international leaders and supporters calling for his release.

“Vladimir Kara-Murza has been brought to the Omsk maximum security penal colony IK-6 to serve his punishment,” his lawyer Vadim Prokhorov said on Facebook. “He was straight away placed in an isolation cell.”

Omsk is located some 2,700 kilometres (1,670 miles) east of Moscow.

11:42am: Russian-installed head of Donetsk imposes five-hour curfew

The Russian-installed head of the Russian-annexed Ukrainian region of Donetsk has imposed a curfew, according to a decree published on Sunday.

Denis Pushilin banned the presence of civilians on streets and public places from 11pm until 4am on Mondays-Fridays, according to the decree.

The decree forbade assemblies, rallies and demonstrations as well as other mass events in Russian-controlled parts of the Donetsk region unless they were permitted by the Operational Headquarters for Military Threat Response in Donetsk People’s Republic.

The decree signed by Pushilin on September 18 introduced “military censorship of postal mail and messages transmitted via telecommunications systems as well as control of telephone conversations”.

Among other steps entailed by Pushilin’s order was the establishment of checkpoints and security posts at borders with the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions.

10:51am: Ukrainian drone strikes Russia’s Kursk, says official

A Ukrainian drone strike hit an administrative building in the centre of Russia‘s southern Kursk city, authorities said Sunday.

Kyiv has targeted Russian cities with almost daily attacks in recent months of Moscow’s 19-month offensive.

Kursk is situated around 90 kilometres (50 miles) from the border with Ukraine.

“In Kursk, a Ukrainian drone attacked an administrative building in the central district,” governor Roman Starovoyt said on Telegram. “The roof was slightly damaged. Employees of the emergency services are working at the scene.”

Last month, a Ukrainian drone strike damaged Kursk’s railway station, leaving five people injured and causing significant damage.

Both Russia and Ukraine report regular drone incursions as Kyiv presses a counteroffensive aimed at reclaiming Russian-held territory.

10:18am: Ukraine’s Zelensky says he met top businessmen during US visit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday he met leading American entrepreneurs and financiers during a visit this week to the United States, where investment opportunities in Ukraine were discussed.

Zelensky said the businessmen, who included Michael Bloomberg, Larry Fink and Bill Ackman, were prepared to make major investments in rebuilding Ukraine after its war with Russia.

“The American entrepreneurs and financiers confirmed their readiness to make large-scale investments in our country immediately after the end of the war and the receipt of security guarantees,” he posted on Telegram, along with photos of the meeting. “We are working for the victory and reconstruction of Ukraine.”

On a trip to the US and Canada this week, Zelensky sought continued military and financial support for Kyiv’s effort to fend off Russia’s 19-month-old invasion.

7:02am: Second Ukraine wheat shipment reaches Turkey, according to tracking sites

A second shipment of Ukrainian wheat reached Turkey via the Black Sea on Sunday, according to maritime traffic monitoring sites, despite Russian threats to attack boats heading to or from its neighbour and enemy.

The Palau-flagged bulk carrier Aroyat – laden with 17,600 tonnes of wheat – left the port city of Chornomorsk on Friday bound for Egypt.

Ukraine is testing a new sea route that avoids using international waters and follows those controlled by NATO members Bulgaria and Romania, following Russia’s withdrawal from a UN-backed grain export deal.

According to the websites Marine Traffic and Vessel Finder, the Aroyat was at the southern exit of the Bosphorus Strait at 0300 GMT on Sunday.

It was to head towards the Dardanelles Strait to reach the Mediterranean.

A first ship loaded with 3,000 tonnes of wheat, and also flying the flag of Palau, left Chornomorsk without incident on Tuesday and arrived in Istanbul on Thursday.

Key developments from Saturday, September 23:

Ukraine on Saturday said dozens of people including senior Russian navy commanders died or were injured when it staged a missile attack on Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol a day earlier.

Kyiv’s army has broken through Russian lines in southern Ukraine, the general leading the counteroffensive there told US media Saturday, in the latest Ukrainian claims that it is making progress in the Zaporizhzhia area.

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

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Another Russian mercenary group shows discontent with the Kremlin: ‘A sign of more to come’

At the end of August, Ukraine declared it had finally managed to pierce Russia’s first line of defence after retaking the small village of Robotyne in Ukraine’s south. This key advance coincided with a Russian mercenary group’s threat to stop fighting on Russia’s behalf on the front lines of the village and could be a sign of more anti-Kremlin sentiment brewing among those fighting for Moscow.

Robotyne has been liberated,” Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar announced on August 28.

Although the tiny village, which had a pre-war population of fewer than 500 people, may be of little importance in itself, it lies along a strategic road that leads to the Russian-occupied road and railway hub of Tokmak. From there, another road leads to the key city of Melitopol, which, prior to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, was known to Ukrainians as the “gateway” to the peninsula. Last week’s victory was therefore an important advance for Ukraine.

Just a few days earlier, however, fighters from Rusich, a small Russian neo-Nazi paramilitary group stationed at Robotyne’s front line, had threatened to lay down their arms – a move that may have contributed to Russia’s stinging loss there.

The official reason for the threat to lay down arms, Rusich explained in an August 25 statement on Telegram, was that one of the group’s top commanders and founding members, Yan Petrovsky, had been detained in Finland and faced extradition to Ukraine – and the Russian government was not doing much about it.

Petrovsky, a dual Russian-Norwegian national, co-founded Rusich back in 2014 to take part in the Russian occupation of Donbas and is believed to have been a contractor for the Wagner Group at one point. He faces various terrorism-related charges in Ukraine and risks being sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in prison if he is extradited.

In a series of messages screen-grabbed by the research project Antifascist Europe, Rusich members expressed frustration with their treatment by the Russian authorities.

“If the country cannot protect its citizens, why should the citizens protect the country?” asked one.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the group did indeed seem to be operating near Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast, describing it as “a critical area of the front line where the Russian military command likely cannot afford for any units to rebel and refuse to conduct combat missions”.

Soon after ISW issued its analysis, Robotyne fell to Ukraine.

There has been no official confirmation – either from Rusich or the Russian defence ministry – that the group’s fighters did stop fighting.

According to Jeff Hawn, a non-resident fellow at the Washington, DC-based think-tank New Lines Institute and an expert in Russian military matters, it would have been a credible scenario.

“There’s a very strong possibility” that the mercenaries laid down arms, which would likely have contributed to the fall of Robotyne, he said. Russia is so short of fighters it cannot replace units that give up, he said, adding that we likely won’t know “for years” what really happened.

Hawn said the reason for a revolt would likely have less to do with the detention of the group’s leader than with a loss of motivation among Russian mercenary fighters in general, coupled with Moscow’s increasing inability to keep them under control.

“These guys are likely just looking for an excuse to get out,” he said. “They’re realising that Ukraine isn’t just going to break and give up.”

The situation for paramilitary groups has been further complicated by Wagner’s attempted mutiny back in June and the death of the mercenary group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, late last month.

Under Prigozhin’s leadership, Hawn explained, Wagner had long served as an organising tool for other Russian militia groups operating in Ukraine. Prigozhin had also established a culture of paying his mercenaries well, and in dollars – a culture that spread to the other militias fighting in Ukraine.

“Even though he had a reputation of being a tough guy, a thug, Prigozhin was known to take good care of his people, paying them more, and in hard currency.”

Following the group’s botched mutiny, however – and Moscow’s subsequent attempts to try to dissolve the group – the working conditions for Prigozhin’s “militia collective” in Ukraine worsened.

“They’re probably getting paid in rubles now – if they’re getting paid at all,” Hawn said.

“They’re also probably not getting supplied, because militia groups are at the very lowest end of the totem pole when it comes to Russian logistics, which are completely overstretched already.”

Before his death, Prigozhin had long complained that the Russian military was not supplying his mercenaries with enough ammunition, even threatening to pull his troops from the front line in the hard-fought city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin’s death – and that of his reported right-hand man Dmitry Utkin in a plane crash on August 23 – also wiped out a whole shadow power structure built upon both connections and the ability to command the “thugs and criminals” fighting as mercenaries.

“There’s no one like Prigozhin who currently has the will, or ability to challenge the government directly,” Hawn said. With the Wagner leader now out of the picture, he said, it will become even harder for Moscow to control the dozen or more militia groups still in Ukraine.

Even worse for Moscow, Hawn said, would be if they were willing to switch sides.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these guys repent and suddenly joined the Free Russian Legion, especially if they’re getting paid in dollars,” he said, referring to a group of pro-Kyiv Russian fighters that claimed to have staged several attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region in recent months.

 “I do think the incident in Robotyne is significant, and that it’s a sign of more things to come.”

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Deadly Russian strike hits blood transfusion centre, says Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Saturday said Russian forces struck a blood transfusion centre in northeast Ukraine. The news came shortly after a Russian missile attack reportedly hit an aeronautics manufacturing facility in western Ukraine. Earlier, Ukrainian drones in the Kerch Strait hit a Russian tanker, briefly halting traffic on the strategic bridge linking Crimea to Russia’s mainland. Read our live blog to see how all the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).

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10:05pm: Deadly Russian strike hits Ukraine blood transfusion centre, says Zelensky

Russian forces struck a blood transfusion centre in the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday, adding that “dead and wounded are reported”.

A “guided air bomb” hit the centre in Kupiansk, a city a few dozen kilometres from the Russian border, Zelensky said on social media, adding that “rescuers are extinguishing the fire”.

8:08pm: Russian missile strike hits Ukraine aeronautics firm, says Zelensky

A Russian missile strike on Saturday hit a facility of the Ukrainian aeronautics group Motor Sich, one of several companies requisitioned by the government since Moscow’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

“Today there was another Russian missile attack against our country. Kinzhals, Calibers. They hit Motor Sich”, Zelensky said in his evening address.

The firm’s facility is located near Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine, around 300 kilometres (190 miles) southwest of Kyiv.

6:29pm: Turkish foreign minister discusses Black Sea grain initiative with Blinken

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan discussed in a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the revival of Black Sea grain initiative, a Turkish foreign ministry source said on Saturday.

The two top diplomats also discussed a normalisation process between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the security of the Black Sea and NATO enlargement during the call, the source said.

6:04pm: Russia vows to punish Ukraine for tanker attack near Crimean Bridge, says foreign ministry

Russia strongly condemns what it regards as a Ukrainian “terrorist attack” on one of its civilian vessels in the Kerch Strait and will respond and punish those responsible, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Saturday.

A Ukrainian sea drone full of explosives struck a Russian fuel tanker overnight near a bridge linking Russia to annexed Crimea, the second such attack in 24 hours, both sides said on Saturday.

5:05pm: Russia dispatches fighter jet to intercept US drone over Black Sea, says defence ministry

Russia said Saturday it scrambled an Su-30 fighter jet to “prevent a violation of the Russian state border” by a US Reaper MQ-9 military drone over the Black Sea.

“As the Russian fighter approached, the foreign reconnaissance drone performed a U-turn,” the Russian defence ministry said, adding “the Russian aircraft returned safely to its airbase, there was no violation of the border”.

1:04pm: Russia says it seized settlement in northeast Ukraine

Russia on Saturday said it captured a settlement in northeastern Ukraine, where Kyiv has reported increased attacks.

“In the area of Kupiansk, as a result of the competent and professional actions of the military units of the Western command, the settlement of Novoselivske was liberated,” the Russian defence ministry said on Telegram.

11:30am: Ukraine security source confirms Ukrainian drone hit Russian tanker last night

Ukraine carried out a drone strike on a Russian tanker in the Kerch Strait, a source in the security service told AFP Saturday, a day after one of Moscow’s ships was hit in the Black Sea.

“Overnight the (Ukrainian Security Service) SBU blew up the ‘SIG’, a large oil tanker of the Russian Federation that was transporting fuel for Russian troops,” the security source said.

It added that the “successful special operation”, which involved a naval drone and explosives, was carried out jointly with the Navy on Ukrainian territorial waters.

The source described the targeted vessel as “one of the most powerful oil tankers of the Russian Federation”.

“It was well-loaded with fuel, so the ‘fireworks’ could be seen from afar,” the source added.

6:54am: Russian tanker hit by Ukrainian drones

A Russian tanker was damaged in an attack by Ukrainian drones in the Kerch Strait, briefly halting traffic on the strategic bridge linking Crimea to Russia’s mainland, a government agency and Russian media reported early Saturday.

The tanker SIG suffered a hole at the waterline in the area of the engine room, “presumably as a result of an attack by a marine drone”, the Federal Agency for Sea and Inland Water Transport said on Telegram. “The ship is afloat.”

An oil boom had been placed around the vessel and preparations were under way to patch the damage, it said.

The Marine Traffic vessel-tracking website showed the SIG stationary and attended by tugs just south of the strait.

The chemical tanker is under US sanctions for supplying jet fuel to Russian forces in Syria supporting President Bashar al-Assad.

The state RIA Novosti news agency said there were no casualties in the attack, citing the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre of Novorossiysk.

Traffic on the bridge across the Kerch Strait linking the Moscow-annexed Crimean peninsula to Russia was halted for around three hours and resumed early Saturday, according to the highways information centre’s Telegram channel.

6:07am: Ukraine expects difficult but successful talks in Saudi Arabia

Talks starting in Saudi Arabia this weekend to find a peaceful settlement to end Russia’s war in Ukraine will be difficult, but Kyiv is counting on persuading more countries to back its peace formula, the head of Kyiv’s delegation said on Friday.

Ukraine and its allies hope the meeting in Jeddah of national security advisers and other senior officials from some 40 countries  but not Russia  will agree on key principles on how to end Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“I expect that the conversation will be difficult, but behind us is truth, behind us  goodness,” Andriy Yermak, head of President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s office and his key envoy for the talks, said late on Friday in a television interview published on his Telegram messaging app.

The forum excludes Russia, but the Kremlin said it will “keep an eye” on the meeting. China, which has firm ties with Russia, said on Friday it will send Special Envoy for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui for the talks.

“We have many disagreements and we have heard different positions, but it is important that our principles are shared,” he said.

Key developments from Friday, August 4:

Russia‘s defence ministry said on Friday that it had thwarted an overnight drone attack by Ukraine on Novorossiysk, a Russian naval base on the Black Sea. A Ukrainian intelligence official told Reuters that a Russian vessel was damaged in the attack, although the regional governor had earlier stated that there had been no damage or casualties.

NATO member Lithuania announced on Friday that it would be closing two of its six border crossings with Belarus amid concerns over the presence of Wagner mercenaries there.

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

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Evacuation of Kyiv icons takes fight for Ukraine’s heritage to Louvre in Paris

The Louvre in Paris is hosting some of Ukraine’s most treasured works of art that were secretly evacuated from Kyiv to shield them from the war. Their exhibition at the world’s best-known museum highlights the role played by culture and heritage as Ukraine resists Russian attempts to deny both its past and present.

In mid-May, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin mulled the transfer of the country’s holiest icon from a Moscow museum to a cathedral church, a secret convoy slipped out of Kyiv, under military escort, carrying artefacts equally precious and more than twice as old.

Bound for Poland, Germany and then France, the cargo featured 16 extremely fragile works from Kyiv’s most prestigious art gallery, the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum, including 1,400-year-old Byzantine icons that rank among Ukraine’s most emblematic treasures.

After months hiding in undisclosed storage facilities in Ukraine, the precious icons found a new and temporary showcase on Wednesday, June 14, at the Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, far from the war raging in eastern Europe and out of reach of Russian bombs.

Hailing from an ancient monastery located at the foot of Mount Sinai, in Egypt’s eponymous desert, the icons have a track record of escaping cataclysm, said Olha Apenko-Kurovets, a curator from the Khanenko Museum currently working at the Louvre.

“There’s barely a dozen left in the world today, including the four that are now here at the Louvre,” she said, noting that the Khanenko artefacts survived the iconoclastic “war on icons” that swept the Byzantine empire in the 7th and 8th centuries.

“They’re not just Ukrainian treasures or Byzantine heritage,” she added. “They are hugely important to world heritage, too.”

A visitor looks at an icon depicting Saints Plato and Glyceria, from the Khanenko Museum’s collections, at the Louvre in Paris. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP

Icons are stylised painted portraits, usually of saints, that are considered sacred in Eastern Orthodox churches. The four Khanenko pieces are encaustic paintings on wood – a pioneering technique that gave birth to the oldest painted icons in the Orthodox world.

The Louvre exhibition includes a fifth work: an exquisitely crafted micro-mosaic representing Saint Nicholas, with a gold frame, believed to hail from late 13th or early 14th century Constantinople. It is one of about 50 such works in the world, noted Apenko-Kurovets, stressing that “all five exhibits at the Louvre are extremely rare – and extremely fragile”.

The Khanenko Museum's micro-mosaic depicting Saint Nicholas, attributed to late 13th- and early 14th-century
Constantinople workshops.
The Khanenko Museum’s micro-mosaic depicting Saint Nicholas, attributed to late 13th- and early 14th-century
Constantinople workshops.
© Khanenko Museum

Unlike Putin’s decision to transfer Andrei Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” to the Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour, which was motivated by propaganda purposes, disregarding the fragile work’s safety, the decision to evacuate the Khanenko icons was dictated by necessity, coming months after the iconic Kyiv museum was damaged in an air strike.

Transporting such works is a delicate operation at the best of times, let alone in wartime. It required absolute secrecy from all parties involved, until the works were safely in Paris.

The artefacts travelled in air-conditioned boxes that were purpose-built in France and transported to Ukraine. The operation was financed in part by the Action Plan for the Protection of Heritage in Ukraine (ALIPH), a Swiss-based foundation that has spent millions of dollars helping to salvage Ukraine’s artistic heritage.

“We did everything we could to ensure they travelled comfortably,” said Apenko-Kurovets, who spoke of her conflicting emotions at seeing the icons in their new temporary home in the heart of Paris.

“It’s a huge relief to have them here, in a safe environment, but very sad that they had to leave in the first place,” she explained. “It is also a major opportunity: to spread knowledge about Ukraine’s art collections and cultural wealth, and raise awareness of the threat weighing on this heritage.”

Scramble to save Ukraine’s artistic treasures

Ukraine was home to seven UNESCO world heritage sites at the start of the war, including Kyiv’s St Sophia Cathedral, whose stunning Byzantine frescoes and mosaics survived multiple invasions, from the onslaught of Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Nazi occupation.

In January, the UN culture agency rushed to add an eighth site – the historic centre of Odesa, the “Pearl of the Black Sea” – to shield it from the bombardment that has ravaged Ukrainian cultural landmarks across the country.

The monument of the Duke of Richelieu in Odesa, covered with sandbags in preparation for a possible Russian offensive, in March 2022.
The monument of the Duke of Richelieu in Odesa, covered with sandbags in preparation for a possible Russian offensive, in March 2022. © Petros Giannakouris, AP

Since February 2022, UNESCO has verified damage to 259 cultural landmarks, including religious sites, museums, monuments and libraries. Ukrainian officials have put the number at twice as many, warning that the catastrophic flooding caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River has put many more at risk.

In the early days of the war, as residents of Kyiv and other cities went underground for cover, so did the art collections from the Khanenko Museum and other venues. Responding to Ukrainian pleas for help, museums across Europe raced to donate emergency supplies to help with the evacuations.

Between March and December 2022, French galleries provided 75 tonnes of packing and preservation materials, from bubble wrap to fire extinguishers, in a collective effort coordinated by the French branch of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The material was delivered by Chenue, an art transportation company, which volunteered its services for free.

“The priority was to protect museum staff and the collections,” said Emilie Girard, head of ICOM France, noting that several museums also offered to hire colleagues from Ukraine for the duration of the war.

“At first, museum workers were keen to stay nearby, in western Ukraine or in Poland, hoping that the war would end quickly and they could return to their jobs,” Girard explained. However, those hopes rapidly faded as the fighting dragged on, turning Putin’s so-called “special military operation” into a deadly war of attrition.

Despite the relentless bombing, and their emptied galleries, Ukraine’s cultural institutes refused to be silenced.

At the Khanenko Museum, director Yuliya Vaganova said staff continued to work night and day, “through blackouts and missile raids, running contemporary art projects, lectures, master-classes for children and concerts”.

The Khanenko Museum in Kyiv after it was damaged by a Russian missile strike in October 2022.
The Khanenko Museum in Kyiv after it was damaged by a Russian missile strike in October 2022. © Yurii Stefanyak

The continuing danger became all too apparent in October when a missile landed a few steps away from the gallery’s elegant 19th century mansion, shattering its windows and damaging the interiors. While the collections had already been moved to a secret location, Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian infrastructure meant they were exposed to repeated power cuts, hampering their safekeeping.

Days later, while on a trip to Paris, Vaganova approached her counterpart from the Louvre, Laurence des Cars, taking up her offer to shelter the Khanenko’s most precious items for the duration of the war. The Kyiv institute pointed to its Byzantine icons, touting the potential for scientific collaboration with the Louvre. Their transfer was formally agreed in February during a visit to Kyiv by France’s culture minister, Rima Abdul Malak.

At the show’s opening in Paris, Abdul Malak’s Ukrainian counterpart Oleksandr Tkachenko spoke of a “symbolic and effective gesture of support for Ukrainian culture”, thanking French authorities and the Louvre for their support.

The minister added: “[The Russians] are stealing our artefacts, they ruined our cultural heritage sites and this shows how big and huge Ukrainian culture is, which is part of world heritage.”

‘We have to protect Ukrainian people – and their culture too’

The Khanenko icons come at an opportune time for the Louvre, which is poised to launch its new Department of Byzantine and Eastern Christian Art, with dedicated rooms scheduled to open in 2027.

“We’re talking about some of the very first icons in the Orthodox world, which made them an obvious draw for the Louvre,” said Apenko-Kurovets. She stressed that the works’ transfer to France is part of a scientific project – involving “close collaboration between French and Ukrainian experts” – as much as it is a rescue operation.

Once the exhibition wraps up on November 6, the precious artefacts will be analysed at the Louvre’s laboratories to determine, among other things, their exact origin and age. The new department’s director, Maximilien Durand, plans to launch an international research programme centred on the icons.

“This is not about questions of identity or nationalism, but about cultural cooperation that will open up new networks for the Khanenko Museum,” Durand told French daily Le Monde, when news of the icons’ evacuation first broke.

Ukraine's Culture Minister Oleksander Tkachenko (centre), pictured with his French counterpart Rima Abdul Malak, at the opening of the Louvre exhibition.
Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksander Tkachenko (centre), pictured with his French counterpart Rima Abdul Malak, at the opening of the Louvre exhibition. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP

According to Olha Sahaidak of the Ukrainian Institute, a government agency tasked with promoting Ukrainian culture abroad, such scientific endeavours are of vital importance for a nation fighting for its survival.

“When a country and its people are destroyed, only culture can tell their story,” she said. “Of course we have to protect the Ukrainian people, but also their culture, and do everything we can to learn it, research it and spread it.”

Sahaidak hailed the Louvre exhibition as a case of “successful collaboration between two culture ministries and two national museums”. She highlighted the speed at which Ukrainian and French teams had collaborated on the project, noting that the Louvre is “not the type of place that normally works in a hurry”.

“We’re talking about a huge institution that plans exhibitions years in advance,” she said. “It was a big challenge to urgently include Ukraine in its plans – and an important gesture of solidarity.”

The Paris show, Sahaidak added, is an opportunity to advance what she described as three “equally important” objectives: to showcase Ukrainian collections, foster international co-operation and research, and relocate Ukraine’s tangible and intangible cultural landmarks within the wider European framework.

“Unfortunately, Ukrainian heritage has long been terra incognita for the rest of Europe,” she said. “It is very important that we raise awareness of this heritage in order to realise what we are losing in this war.”

Decolonising Ukrainian art

Since the start of the war, museums and art institutes across France have rushed to adapt their programmes and sift through their collections to showcase Ukrainian artists and raise awareness of the plight of the country’s cultural landmarks.

“While the first reaction was to offer material help to Ukrainian galleries, the focus now is on giving maximum visibility to Ukraine,” said ICOM’s Girard. “It’s a form of resistance, with the tools at our disposal: proving that Ukrainian culture, art and heritage exist – and that this rich and vibrant culture deserves to be seen far and wide, including at a formidable venue such as the Louvre.”

In some cases, this has sparked a reflection on the way museums qualify works by artists hailing from Ukraine – though critics say France has lagged behind others.

In an op-ed published by Le Monde in March, Olena Havrylchyk, a professor of economics at the Université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne, noted that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had recently recognised the 19th century painters Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin as Ukrainian, after previously presenting them as Russian painters. She drew a contrast with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which chose to ignore the painters’ Ukrainian identity, ties and subject matter during a roundtable on Russian art held just days later.

“Instead of perpetuating the Russian narrative, the Musée d’Orsay could have questioned the ways in which painters born in Ukraine became ‘Russian’ in the context of Russia’s colonisation of Ukraine,” Havrylchyk wrote, noting that the painters lived at a time when Russian imperial power was “systematically destroying Ukrainian identity” – much as Putin is now dismissing Ukraine as a post-Soviet fantasy or a Western plot.

French reluctance to question Moscow’s narrative reflects a lingering Russophile sentiment and the legacy of a long-established dialogue with Russian art historians, argued Sahaidak of the Ukrainian Institute.

“In the past it was always Russia that provided names, facts and context, so now we are seen through the eyes of Russian researchers and art historians,” she said. “We need our colleagues around the world to requalify their collections, in dialogue with Ukrainian experts, identifying the works of art that are connected with Ukraine and its history.”


The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has presented an opportunity to foster such a dialogue, while also encouraging the circulation of Ukrainian art and artists in spite of the war – and sometimes because of it.

“Now is the time to access and discover some of the finest works from our national collections, which would otherwise not move,” said Apenko-Kurovets, pointing to the icons from the Khanenko Museum.

With its unprecedented Ukrainian-language captions, and a leaflet referencing Ukraine’s “millennia-old history”, the Louvre exhibition suggests the dialogue between experts is beginning to bear fruit in the world’s best-known museum.

“It’s the first time an exhibition at the Louvre ‘speaks’ Ukrainian,” added the Ukrainian curator in exile. “It might sound like a detail, but it makes all the difference to us.”

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Is the Kakhovka dam breach a hard blow to the Ukrainian counteroffensive?

The destruction on Tuesday of the Kakhovka dam, near the town of Kherson, has been seen by some as strategic blow to Ukrainian counteroffensive plans that have been in the works for months. But crossing the Dnipro River is not the only way Ukraine can regain territories occupied by Russia.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was direct in his assessment of the motives behind the Kakhovka dam breach on Tuesday, June 6. “Considering all the elements, we have to naturally assume that it was a Russian attack to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive aiming to liberate Ukrainian territory,” the German leader said.

Ukrainian authorities have made the same claims, which have been denied by Russia. In turn, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu blamed the incident on the Ukrainian military who, he said, breached the dam to “prevent offensives by the Russian army along this part of the frontlines”.

Impossible to cross the river?

Whichever side is responsible, the dam breach – which has forced tens of thousands of people to flee flooded areas – will also have an impact on military activity.

One major theory for the anticipated counteroffensive was that Ukrainian troops would try to cross the Dnipro River where it narrows in the Kherson region before making a fast advance south east towards Crimea. In doing so, Ukraine could cut Russian supply lines running from the peninsula to troops stationed in the Zaporizhzhia and Donbas regions.

>> Read more: A small step across the Dnipro River, a giant leap for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

Now though, millions of cubic metres of water have poured from the Kakhovka dam into the adjacent Dnipro River near Kherson, flooding all in its path. “If we wanted to cross the river there, it’s not going to happen,” a Ukrainian officer who wanted to remain anonymous told the Financial Times.

The Nova Kakhovka dam is located in Russian-held territory along the Dnipro river. © Studio Graphique France Médias Monde

Crossing the river near Kherson is still technically possible according to Jeff Hawn, a Russian military specialist and consultant for Newlines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre. “It’s difficult but not impossible to cross – but only for small groups of infantry. Forget about the armoured vehicles,” he said.

Increased water levels are not the only problem. “There will be destroyed infrastructure, and a lot of debris; operating in this kind of environment is extremely difficult and dangerous,” Hawn added.

Such obstacles negate the purpose of crossing the Dnipro River in the Kherson region, meaning a possible rethink of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and an advantage for Russia who could use of the time gained to “reconfigure its defence”, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Options for a counteroffensive

However, multiple experts believe that Ukraine never seriously envisaged a counteroffensive based on crossing the Dnipro River.

“I see no chance that Ukraine had any plans to cross the river in this region. As far as we can see, they are amassing most of their troops in the regions of Vuhledar and Donetsk,” said Sim Tack from Force Analysis, a company specialising in military analysis.

As such, Tack believes it is “absolutely untrue” that the dam breach has changed Ukraine’s military plans.

The Kherson region has “always lacked the proper infrastructure and is quite swampy”, added Huseyn Aliyev, Lecturer in Central and East European Studies at University of Glasgow. “Moving anything larger than Humvees would always have been a huge challenge.”

That does not mean that the dam breach and consequent flooding will have no impact on military activity. “It does decrease the number of points from which the Ukrainians can launch the counteroffensive. [The dam breach] removed one of the points of the list,” Aliyev said.

Russian defence troops positioned near Kherson can now be reassigned to other areas considered at higher risk of attack – starting with the eastern city of Donetsk.

“Donetsk seems to be the main option now,” Hawn said, “The Ukrainian military could try to get around the Dnipro there and head down to Mariupol which has always had high symbolic value [in Ukraine].”

‘Worst effects’ to be felt by Russia

The dam breach also gives Russia another advantage: it might distract Ukrainian authorities. Instead of leading a counter offensive at the same time as organising emergency aid and managing a humanitarian crisis, Ukraine may be tempted to delay military operations until the situation around Kherson is under control.

>> Read more: In pictures: Thousands flee flooding after Russian-held Kakhovka dam bursts

However, international pressure might make it difficult to do so. “There is a political dimension at play here,” Hawn said. “Kyiv has to show the logistical support from the West has not been wasted. So, a counteroffensive is the top priority for the moment.”

One factor is in Ukraine’s favour, Tack said: “I don’t think they will need to divert military personal from the front to help with the flooding – they have enough other people to take care of this kind of situation.”

Another is that Ukraine is not the only military affected by the floods. “The worst effects will be felt by the Russian army,” said Aliyev. “Their first line of defence was right on the river banks and had to be redeployed as quickly as possible.” An emergency evacuation means they may have left equipment and weaponry behind.

In the aftermath of the flooding, “quite a lot roads leading to Crimea are flooded, so there is going to be an impact on logistics”, Aliyev added. “Crimea is an important logistics hub for Russian troops in the south of Ukraine.”

The long-term impact may also put Russia at a disadvantage. In Crimea, “the irrigation system has been partially destroyed due to the flooding, which could have a significant effect if it means that Crimea is out of fresh water because war is a very water-intensive endeavour”, Tack said.

In short, if Russia is responsible for the breach of the Kakhovka, the gamble may well backfire.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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A look at the Free Russia Legion, the pro-Ukrainian group that attacked Belgorod

A cross-border incursion into the Russian region of Belgorod on Monday put the Free Russia Legion under the spotlight, prompting questions about this mysterious paramilitary unit of anti-Putin Russians.

Russians fighting for Ukraine crossed the border north of Kharkiv into Russia’s Belgorod region on Monday night, prompting accusations from Moscow and denials from Kyiv. A paramilitary group called the Free Russia Legion (and another known as the Russian Volunteer Corps) later claimed responsibility for the incursion, prompting a new round of questions about the group: Who are they and what kind of weaponry do they have?

Russian authorities on Tuesday said they had eliminated the group of “saboteurs” responsible and injured several in the Grayvoron district 80 km north of Belgorod city, although the Free Russia Legion’s political representative told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday the group “didn’t lose a single soldier”.

>> Read more: Pro-Kyiv Russian group says it ‘didn’t lose a single soldier’ in cross-border raids on Belgorod

Significantly, Moscow did not refer to the unit directly. Admitting that Russian fighters had turned against the national army and were launching attacks on Russian territory would be “really bad for Putin and Russian propaganda”, said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in Russian and Ukrainian security at the University of Glasgow.

Such an admission could even pose a threat to those in the Kremlin. “It is their strongest possible way to make a point, to try to show to Russian audience they exist as an opposing force to Putin’s regime,” said Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation and a specialist in the Russian military.

A mysterious unit

The Free Russia Legion was established in March 2022 after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for volunteers days after the Russian invasion the previous month.

It’s just the same as all the other fighters in the international legion. They just happen to be Russian,” Grant said.

The unit has always been shrouded in mystery, but individual members are far less enigmatic. In Ukraine they are quite well-known because a lot of them have been interviewed by Ukrainian media or Russian opposition outlets,” Aliyev pointed out.

Some of them, especially in the beginning, were former PoWs who were given the choice to join this Legion. I don’t think most of them have a professional army background, but they have received decent training, and have combat experience because they fought in Donbas region and around Bakhmut,” Aliyev said.

A former vice-president of Gazprombank, Igor Volobuev, announced in April 2022 that he was going to joingiving the Free Russia Legion one of its most famous recruits.

The Legion makes much of its dual identity, sporting uniforms that display both the white, blue and white stripes of the Russian opposition and the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.

Its fighters have also adopted a capital letter “L” – for “Legion” and “Liberty” – apparently in response to the “Z” that adorns Russian army tanks and uniforms.

Founded with just 100 fighters, it is difficult to know how large the Free Russia Legion is today or where it has been active. But some analysts believe it has grown significantly since its inception.

It could be up to two batallions, meaning around 2,000 men,” said Stephen Hall, a Russia expert at Bath University. 

Most members have been vague about numbers when speaking to the media, citing hundreds of fighters with support in most of Russia’s major cities.

Good propaganda for Ukraine?

It is unclear whether the Legion shares a common ideology.

In terms of ideology, it is confusing. They are nothing like the [Russian] Volunteer corps, a well known far-right, proto-Nazi militia, who they seem to have fight alongside during the Belgorod raid,” Hall said.

“They are driven by a broad anti-Putin ideology. It seems like they want more democracy, but maybe not in the purely Western sense of it. And let’s be honest, some of them have probably joined for the better pay,” Aliyev added.

Where the unit has deployed also remains unknown. They appear to have fought in eastern Ukraine as well as in Bakhmut. But according to Aliyev it is unclear how long they stayed in Bakhmut or where they were stationed in the Donbas. 

The group’s obscurity has prompted doubts as to whether it exists at all: It’s a common view in Russia, which is convenient for the Putin regime. 

“It’s very important for […] Ukrainian propaganda,” Hall said. Their mere existence shows that Russian are fighting directly Putin and it sends the message that the regime must be aware and fear possible action from inside the country. That’s why there are people saying it could be a PR op for Ukraine. It’s too perfect.

“One possibility is that the Legion does have some Russian fighters, mostly already leaving in Ukraine before the war, and the Legion was built around them,” Hall continued.

Plausible deniability                                                                                       

But most experts FRANCE 24 spoke to believe they really are Russian fighters. A phantom legion of Russian soldiers makes little sense, Aliyev said, given their active presence on social media and the fact that Ukraine “has heavily invested in this Legion, providing training and armoured vehicles. They really wanted them to be operational alongside the Ukrainian army.”   

I think they didn’t really know until now how to use this Legion. For exemple, they clearly didn’t want to send them for too long [to] Bakhmut and risk losing them. So that’s why there was little information about what was going on with them,” Aliyev continued. The Free Russia Legion was too valuable a propaganda instrument to be sent into the hell of Bakhmut, and too difficult to integrate into the chain of command for complex manoeuvres in the Donbas. 

The unit has a certain degree of autonomy, and it would very well be possible that they acted on their own. But nonetheless, some sort of non-official approval from Ukrainian army official has probably be given”, said Sim Tack, an analyst at Force Analysis, a US-based conflict monitoring firm.

Working separately from – but in coordination with – the regular Ukrainian army makes the Legion ideal for raids into enemy territory.

What this legion offers to Kyiv is plausible deniability when it comes to talking to western countries about what happened in Russian territory,” Hall said.

This would cross a red line with the United States and Ukraine’s other NATO allies, which do not want Ukraine to escalate the conflict by attacking Russian territory – and especially not while using Western weapons.

Nevertheless, incursions into Russian territory make sense as a military strategy.

“One outcome might be that Russia will feel obliged to move some troops to the northern part of the border in order to secure it, which could help a counter offensive if it happened in the south,” Tack said.

It also highlights that Russia has “poorly guarded” territory near the border, Grant added.

All of this makes the paramilitary units a dangerous complication for the Kremlin. And if Moscow is unable to acknowledge that pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters took the army by surprise, the Kremlin will need to find other culprits to blame.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

This article was translated from the original in French.

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