In Ukraine’s Donbas, ten years of war and Russification

On April 7, 2014, a coup by pro-Russian militants in the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine was the spark that ignited the Donbas war. In the heart of this industrial region, populated at the time by six million mostly Russian-speaking inhabitants, the armed confrontation began between an expansionist Russia and a Ukraine aspiring to consolidate its independence. The Donbas has become a desolate landscape after ten years of war, and Russification has been brutally imposed.

Mentioned in international news bulletins during the past ten years of war in the Donbas, the names of dozens of towns like Bakhmut or Avdiivka  became known far beyond Ukraine’s borders. These places now lie in ruins, along with the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and Donetsk International Airport

With the benefit of historical perspective, the battlegrounds in Donbas appear to be the precursor of Russia’ s large-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

Donetsk and Luhansk, the two administrative regions, or oblasts, which make up Ukraine’s Donbas region, were officially annexed by Russia in September 2022. According to Moscow, they are now part of the Russian Federation. This annexation is deemed illegal by the Ukrainians, who still control part of the region, and by the vast majority of the international community.

Ten years after the fighting began, the Donbas remains the scene of bloody trench warfare, resembling a modern-day version of the Battle of Verdun. According to military analysts, the Ukrainians fire up to 60,000 artillery shells a month across the 1,000-kilometre-long front line, while their Russian adversaries can fire between 300,000 and 600,000 shells.

At the heart of Russian and Soviet mythologies

The region, named after the Donets river and its mining basin (Donets basin), has been part of Ukraine since it became an independent state in 1991. Larger than the Netherlands, the Donbas was formerly part of the Russian Empire, and then the USSR.

The region’s largest city, Donetsk, entered the industrial age thanks to a Welshman, John Hughes, who in 1869 founded a huge metallurgical complex of coal mines and foundries that revolutionised the local economy. By 1900, 68% of the Russian empire’s coal was extracted in the Donetsk basin.

According to an imperial census carried out in 1897, a third of the Donbas population were Russians attracted to the region by the development of mining and heavy industry. In the same census the Tsarist administration recorded that Ukrainians made up half the population while minority communities included Jews, Tatars, Germans and Greeks.

In the years 1924-1961, the town was named “Stalino”. It was the scene of the exploits of the coal miner Alekseï Stakhanov, whose prodigious output made him a champion of Soviet productivity and a hero of Stalinist propaganda. During the Soviet era, from Moscow’s perspective, the Donbas and its workforce were an industrial bastion – and an integral part of Russia.

“Donbas in the heart of Russia”. Soviet poster, 1921. Wikimedia Commons © Auteur inconnu. Wikimedia Commons

“In the Soviet imagination, Donbas was the furnace of the entire Soviet Union,” explains historian Galia Ackerman. “With the rise of industrialisation, many Russian skilled workers and engineers arrived in the region. The Donbas was very strongly Russified in the 1930s.” 

In 1991, however, 83% of the population of the Donbas region voted in favour of Ukrainian independence. In the years that followed, the predominantly Russian-speaking population struggled with the transition to a post-communist system, a period marked by de-industrialisation and a severe economic crisis.

In every Ukrainian presidential election over the following decades, voters in Donbas, like those in other regions of eastern Ukraine, cast their votes for political parties close to Russia.

In the 2010 elections, Viktor Yanukovych ‘s Party of Regions won 80-90% of the vote against the pro-European party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Just prior to the outbreak of the conflict in 2014, the Donbas was “a blighted region where the population was impoverished and greatly missed the Soviet Union”, says Ackerman. “There were local mafias and a number of oligarchs who had taken over most of the heavy industry. There were towns where all life depended on the boss – social services, medicine, everything.” Many journalists have observed that these local bosses also controlled the media and tolerated no opposition.

Secession, and self-proclaimed people’s republics

In the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, parties favouring closer ties with the EU had prevailed. On February 22, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Donetsk and then to Russia.  The parliamentary deputies in Kyiv then quickly repealed the law making Russian one of the country’s official languages.

The next day, anti-Maidan demonstrations broke out in Donbas and in Russian-speaking cities elsewhere in Ukraine, notably Odesa. Russian forces seized strategic sites in Crimea on February 27, then completed the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in just three weeks.

Anti-Maidan protests in Ukraine continued throughout March. In Western countries, these demonstrators began to be referred to as “pro-Russian separatists”. In Kyiv, they were described as terrorists.

The Russian state media began referring to a “Russian Spring” in Ukraine, and labelled supporters of the new pro-European Ukrainian leadership as fascists. 

For Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the war in Ukraine at Glasgow University, “Donbas is certainly Russian-speaking, but there was no organised separatism in Donbas before 2014. It’s not a region that had organised separatist aspirations before that.”

On April 7, 2014, a group of around 1,000 pro-Russian activists seized the buildings and weapons stores of the Ukrainian security service, the SBU,  in Donetsk and Luhansk. On April 12, another armed group, led by a former colonel of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) occupied several police and SBU buildings in Sloviansk, and a similar scenario unfolded in Kramatorsk. “The whole of the Donbas seemed destined for the same fate as Crimea,” write the military historians Michel Goya and Jean Lopez in their book “L’ours et le renard: Histoire immédiate de la guerre en Ukraine” (The Bear and the Fox: Immediate history of the war in Ukraine).

In yellow, the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that make up Ukraine's Donbas region. The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014.
In yellow, the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that make up Ukraine’s Donbas region. The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014. © Studio graphique FMM

According to Goya and Lopez, the Russian regime then decided on a strategy “aimed at the partition of Ukraine”, its efforts to subjugate the entire country having twice been thwarted, in 2005 during the Orange Revolution, then in 2013-2014 during the Maidan Uprising.

The historians note that “the Kremlin has no shortage of ideologues to theorise about the creation of a buffer state and to revive the old Tsarist term ‘New Russia’ ” – a term designating Ukrainian provinces “where Russian speakers are in a relative majority or significant minority,”  including the provinces of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Dniepropetrovsk, Zaporijjia, Mikolayev, Kherson and Odesa.

For the geographer and diplomat Michel Foucher, the methods Russia used to seize power and annex territory, applied so smoothly in Crimea, were once again put to use in April 2014. “The historical argument, the role of special forces, the use of violence, a false pretence of a referendum, all of this is replicated in the Donbas,” he says. On May 11, 2014, two referendums – not recognised by Ukraine or Western countries – were held in Donetsk and Luhansk. The “yes” vote for independence from Ukraine won massively in both cases, and marked the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).

The first Donbas war: April 2014 – February 2015

The day after the pro-Russian separatists took power, Kyiv immediately launched an “anti-terrorist operation”. Its army was still poorly organised, and relied on volunteer battalions often drawn from the nationalist and radical movements like the Azov Brigade or Pravy Sektor.

Then came a sequence of troop movements and armed clashes. In July, pro-Ukrainian forces pushed back the separatists at Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut. On July 17,  a Malaysia Airlines airliner carrying 298 passengers and crew was shot down by surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine over territory controlled by pro-Russian forces.

In August, pro-Kyiv forces were on the verge of retaking the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Faced with the deteriorating military situation, Moscow sent reinforcements. “Russian armed forces entered the Donbas probably at the end of July and in August,” says Aliyev. “They were certainly already present in large numbers and several Russian brigades were deployed in Ukraine, although Russia obviously denied all this.”

A Ukrainian flag flies over the control tower of Donetsk  International Airport during an artillery battle between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine,Oct. 17, 2014
A Ukrainian flag flies over the traffic control tower of Donetsk International Airport during an artillery battle between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. © Dmitry Lovetsky, AP

“By the end of August, the number of Russian soldiers in Ukraine was between 3,500 and 6,500,” write Goya and Lopez, enabling the pro-Russian forces to launch a lightning offensive that was only halted by the signing of the first in the series of Minsk agreements, which established a ceasefire on September 4, 2014.

On January 14, 2015, a new Russian offensive was launched in support of the “separatist” forces. It resulted in the capture of Donetsk International Airport and the fall of the Debaltseve pocket after very intense fighting.

On February 12, 2015, the so-called Minsk II agreements formalised the de facto partition of Ukrainian territory, marking a victory for Russia.

In the years that followed, and until the full-scale Russian attack on February 24, 2022, “violations of the ceasefire and the multiple truces, small-scale attacks and artillery fire hardly ever ceased, without the line of contact between the forces really moving. The war in Donbas killed 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers and 3,000 to 5,000 civilians” on both sides, note Goya and Lopez.

Separatism or proxy war?

In Ukraine, many people blamed Europeans and Americans for their passivity in the face of the Russian aggression in 2014. From Kyiv’s point of, the “pro-Russian separatists” were being guided by Moscow – the separatists would never have taken up arms to protect their identity and language without Moscow’s endorsement and active support.

For the analyst Aliyev, the outbreak of war in the Donbas was the first step towards Russia’s large-scale military intervention in Ukraine. “Until 2022, Russia maintained a permanent military presence in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which varied in size depending on the situation. During periods of intense confrontation with Ukraine, regular military personnel were deployed in greater numbers. At other times, the security services of the Russian military sent units to help the local separatists”, he explains.

As the conflict progressed, local players with regional ambitions – such as Alexander Zakharchenko, the first leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – were eliminated.  Considered insufficiently compliant by his Russian allies, Zakharchenko was assassinated in a 2018 car bomb attack. His counterpart in the Luhansk People’s Republic was replaced on Moscow’s orders. Since then, the two breakaway republics have been led by political figures who have pledged allegiance to the Kremlin.

“Between 2016 and 2022, these two entities became almost entirely dependent on the Russian Federation in every way: financially, economically and militarily. Moscow paid salaries, pensions and so on. It is probably from this period onwards that we can speak of Russia’s governance by proxy,” says Aliyev.

The second Donbas war and the nibbling away of Ukraine’s territory

On February 21, 2022, three days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia recognised the independence and sovereignty of the two self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. On February 24, Russian troops launched an all-out assault on Ukrainian territory, notably from Belarus, Crimea and Donbas.

In the first days of the war, Russian forces advanced across Ukraine, only to be halted by the Ukrainian army and territorial defence volunteers.

After the failure of the Russian advance toward Kyiv, followed by its withdrawal from the northeast of Ukraine at the end of March, Russia officially declared that the real aim of the “special operation”, as the Kremlin called it, was the “liberation of the Donbas”.

In a speech on February 24, Vladimir Putin claimed to want to disarm and “denazify” the whole of Ukraine.

The front line in Donbas: Russian armed forces control the territories to the east of the current front line (the red line). The front line between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces from 2015 to Febru
The front line in Donbas: Russian armed forces control the territories to the east of the current front line (the red line). The front line between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces from 2015 to February 2022 is indicated by the yellow line. © Studio graphique FMM

In May and June 2022, Ukrainian forces were forced to evacuate Lyman, Severodonetsk and Lyssychansk in the Luhansk region. Further south, Russian troops succeeded in taking Mariupol after a bloody siege. This industrial port of 400,000 inhabitants on the Sea of Azov was mercilessly bombed.

Seventy percent of the city was destroyed, including the theatre that served as a refuge for civilians. According to the Ukrainian authorities, at least 20,000 inhabitants perished in the fighting. Azovstal, Europe’s largest steelworks, had been built “in the 1950s with underground shelters to house 30,000 people in the event of a nuclear war” and was completely destroyed “after being shelled with 3-ton bombs”, according to Goya and Lopez.

A Ukrainian fighter belonging to the Azov regiment in the basement of the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol on May 10, 2022.
A Ukrainian fighter belonging to the Azov regiment in the basement of the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol on May 10, 2022. © Dmytro Kozatsky, AP

After a successful counter-offensive in September 2022 that enabled Ukraine to retake a number of localities in the two Donbas oblasts, the main clash took place in Bakhmut, which the mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner Group finally captured on May 25, 2023. The long bloody battle, referred to by combatants as a “meat grinder”, resulted in the total destruction of this town of 70,000 inhabitants.

After a new Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer of 2023 – this time without territorial gains – Russian forces resumed their strategy of nibbling away at the front line and seized the small town of Avdiivka in February 2024, at the cost of heavy casualties and the town’s total destruction.

On the defensive, Ukrainian forces have since begun to reinforce the fortifications of the Donbas front line in order to hold out against an enemy that is trying to crush them via a deluge of artillery shells. “The battle of Donbas: ‘destroying a lot and advancing a little’ “, note Goya and Lopez, describing Russian tactics.

“The Russians are adapting objectives and goals according to the reality on the ground, they are literally trying to seize and occupy every piece of land in Ukraine. That seems to be their objective at the moment,” says Aliyev.

The ‘New Russia’?

In the part of the Donbas that has been outside Ukrainian sovereignty for ten years, a return to the pre-2014 situation now seems highly unlikely. The breakaway Ukrainian republics that seceded in 2014 have since 2022 become official Russian territories, where the ruble circulates and a large proportion of the inhabitants have acquired Russian citizenship.

In March 2024, for the first time, the inhabitants of Donbas took part in a Russian presidential election, as did the inhabitants of other Ukrainian areas partially occupied by the Russian army such as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, under strong pressure from the new authorities.

“Russification began in 2014. They changed the textbooks. They simply killed or imprisoned or drove away all those who were pro-Ukrainian. We mustn’t forget that there are nearly a million Donbas inhabitants who fled to Ukraine during the occupation of Donbas by pro-Russian and Russian forces,” Ackerman says.

Given the restricted access to this densely populated industrial region, it is difficult to accurately assess the destruction, reconstruction and degree of Russification in the territories conquered by Russia.

In August 2022, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin presented Vladimir Putin with a plan to rebuild Mariupol within three years, including the redevelopment of the devastated Azovstal steelworks industrial zone, which was to be converted into a “technology hub”.

Since then, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has made a series of visits to the seaside city – not to mention the Russian president’s visit in March 2023 – with the aim of turning Mariupol into a showcase for the “New Russia” (“Novorossiya”).

Russian television frequently reports from Mariupol on the construction of brand new apartment blocks, schools and medical centres. “There’s a massive influx of Russians to Mariupol because it’s a city by the sea, and the sales pitch to Russians is ‘Come join us, real estate is cheap’. The town is being completely rebuilt, the incoming population replacing those that have left,” explains historian Ackerman.

People stand near the sculpture of the name of the city of Mariupol written in Russian and painted in the colours of the Russian national flag during celebration of Russia Day in the city on June 12,
People stand near the sculpture of the name of the city of Mariupol written in Russian and painted in the colours of the Russian flag during celebrations of Russia Day in the city on June 12, 2022. © AP photo

Faced with Russian expansionism, European diplomacy seems to have no influence at all on the Russia-Ukraine war that has been raging for ten years on the fringes of Europe.

The Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, sponsored by France and Germany, were a resounding failure.

In February 2023, French geographer and diplomat Michel Foucher estimated that “the military situation on the ground could lead to a kind of freeze around stable, well-defended front lines on both sides, without any agreed settlement or even any ceasefire”.

After a decade of war in the Donbas, the question diplomats will have to consider in years to come is how to determine where the EU ends and where Russia begins.

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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Anti-Putin Russian groups stage new cross-border raids into Russia

Pro-Ukrainian forces are conducting incursions into Russian territory, temporarily seizing a village in the border region of Kursk, reminiscent of similar operations in the spring of 2023 but occurring in a very different military and political context.

Ukraine-based Russian militias are again on the attack, staging cross-border raids this week into Russian territory. Pro-Ukrainian forces even claimed on Tuesday, March 12, to have taken full control of a Russian village. The Freedom of Russia Legion, mainly composed of anti-Putin Russian fighters, posted a video showing Russian soldiers deserting Tetkino, a municipality in the Kursk region, on the Russian side of the border. 

Forces from other pro-Ukrainian groups – the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion – also announced incursions into the Kursk and Belgorod regions. These attacks were carried out with the support of “tanks, armoured vehicles, and drones“, according to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group. 

Moscow initially denied the attackers had entered areas inside Russia before stating later that the enemy fighters did not advance very far into Russia and were all driven back. “Thanks to the sacrifice of Russian soldiers, all attacks by Ukrainian terrorists have been repelled,” affirmed the Russian ministry of defence. 

The situation on the ground appears to be somewhat less clear than suggested by Russian authorities. “Currently, there are still battles around Tetkino and pro-Ukrainian forces still seem capable of controlling part of this locality,” says Sim Tack, chief military analyst at Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company. 

Russia’s national guard said on Thursday it was fighting off attacks from pro-Ukrainian groups in the Kursk region, as clashes continued at the border. 

The Russian defence ministry claimed its troops killed 195 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed five tanks and four armoured infantry vehicles, two days after saying it killed 234 Ukrainian troops in another border assault. 

In a joint statement, three pro-Kyiv militia groups called on Russian authorities to evacuate civilians from the regions of Belgorod and Kursk, saying that “civilians should not suffer from the war”. 

The current incursions are “very similar to what happened in the spring and summer of 2023”, notes Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russia-Ukraine war at the University of Glasgow. In that incursion, pro-Kyiv Russian troops had crossed the border – a little further south, in the Belgorod region – and temporarily seized a village before retreating under pressure from Russian artillery. 

At the time unprecedented, last year’s incursions served to put pressure on Russia by highlighting that its national territory was poorly protected. The dynamics of the war were then in Ukraine’s favour, given its army had managed to fend off Russian offensives. The 2023 raids had begun just before the start of Kyiv’s counteroffensive and gave the impression that Ukraine could strike anywhere. 

The situation today is very different. The counteroffensive has fizzled out and Ukraine is now more on the back foot. As Aliyev notes: “Moscow has built a defensive line – similar to the one it set up in Ukraine – about twenty kilometres inside Russian territory.” This line of  trenches extends from the north of the Kursk region to the south of the Belgorod region. 

Before last year, “Russia didn’t have any defensive positions there”, Aliyev adds, meaning incursions could be made deeper into Russian territory. 

Pro-Ukrainian forces chose to attack Tetkino for its vulnerable position.  

“The village captured is not behind the defensive line. It’s a buffer zone, what Russia calls a security zone,” Aliyev says. “On the other side of the border the region is mostly under control of Ukrainians, so it’s not difficult for pro-Ukraine forces to cross the border and occupy that village” 

An attempt to influence the Russian election? 

If taking a border village like Tetkino was a relatively easy objective for the Freedom of Russia Legion and other armed groups of anti-Putin Russians, it remains to be seen how long they’ll be able to stay there. “If they’ve taken armoured vehicles, it’s also in anticipation of a rapid retreat, so they suspect they won’t be able to occupy Tetkino” for long, notes Tack.    

But why expend resources on a raid into Russia instead of strengthening defences on the front line in the Donbas, where Ukraine’s forces are under great duress? Officially, the Freedom of Russia Legion claimed it wanted to “influence the presidential election” to be held March 15-17, according to the Moscow Times 

The pro-Kyiv Russians aim to show their compatriots that there is an alternative to Putin. “It is a way for them to try to prove to the Russians that they have the means to ‘liberate Russia from Putin’,” explains Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna. 

The Ukrainian military leadership also stated that the Russian militia groups had acted on their own without informing Kyiv. According to Tack, this is unlikely “because to be able to move troops and tanks in this region, at least tacit approval from the Ukrainian army is needed. But this helps strengthen the narrative of an operation carried out by Russians to overthrow Vladimir Putin“. 

But the ambitions of the anti-Putin forces are obviously unattainable, Tack says. “These fighters do not have the means to go very far,” he notes, adding that they did not even attempt to break through the new Russian defensive lines. 

Few Russians will even hear about the capture of Tetkino, says Aliyev. “The problem is that most Russian don’t follow independent media or Western mass media. And they will be fed with the Russian propaganda about a Ukrainian failed ‘terrorist’ attempt” against Russia.” 

Kyiv’s ‘diversion capabilities’ 

In this regard, the cross-border raids could even be counterproductive. Coming just days before the Russian presidential election, “these incursions will likely cement the attractiveness of Putin as president”, says Fasola. “The rhetoric of a ‘besieged Russia’ is key to Putin’s platform and these attacks on Russian territory basically prove he’s right, in the eyes of the larger Russian public.” 

But these operations are not useless in the eyes of the Ukrainian high command. “These anti-Putin Russian forces are part of the diversion capabilities at Kyiv’s disposal,” notes Tack. “Each of their operations serves to push Moscow to allocate resources capable of intervening quickly to defend the entry points into Russian territory.”  

The raids are part of “a broader strategy at work in recent weeks”, says Tack. There were attacks against Russian warships in the Black Sea at the end of February, followed by the strike using dozens of drones against the Lukoil oil refinery in Kirichi, near Saint Petersburg. These diversions are intended to demonstrate Ukraine’s disruptive capability, even when pushed into an essentially defensive role on the front line. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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Another Ukraine: a disinformation platform run by an exiled Ukrainian oligarch in Russia

Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who is close to Vladimir Putin, found refuge in Russia after leaving Ukraine, where he faces treason charges. He runs a Russian-language portal pushing Kremlin narratives on Ukraine and the war, but his latest foray into disinformation has run into its own challenges.

Every day, new phrases hammer home messages from Another Ukraine, a Russian-language portal launched in the summer of 2023: “Russia is Ukraine’s only salvation,” “They wanted NATO and are ready to die for Western interests.” The news is uniformly negative.

The project is officially led by Viktor Medvedchuk, a leading figure pushing pro-Kremlin interests in post-Soviet Ukraine, but it is orchestrated behind the scenes by Ilya Gambashidze’s Social Design Agency, a Russian IT company closely linked to the Kremlin whose digital disinformation campaigns are now targeting international opinion. The digital platform claims to “unite the dynamic forces capable of reversing the situation and pulling the Ukrainian people out of the impasse in which they find themselves”.

Read moreIlya Gambashidze: Disinformation soldier or king of Russian trolls?

Medvedchuk is certainly no stranger to intrigue and disinformation. For 20 years, the oligarch had been a conduit for Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, in both the political sphere and the media. His close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin have made him a reviled figure in his home country. The two men, about the same age, have known each other since the early 2000s. Putin had just come to power in Russia and Medvedchuk was chief of staff for Ukraine’s then president Leonid Kuchma.

Their relationship took on a personal dimension when Medvedchuk became Putin’s “kum”, a term of kinship in Slavic culture, a link cemented when Putin was chosen as godfather to Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter.

Medvedchuk likes to emphasise this personal bond with Putin to show off his own importance. 

Placed under house arrest in May 2021 after being charged with treason, he escaped and went on the run just days after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.   

The eventual recapture of the man branded a “traitor” in Ukraine caused a sensation: dressed in camouflage clothing, disheveled and weak, Medvedchuk’s release from jail was eventually granted in September 2022 when he was included in a prisoner exchange. Kyiv saw the release of 215 soldiers, including 108 from the Azov regiment captured in Mariupol, while 55 Russians were also freed. The transaction was unbalanced, but as they say in Russia, “Svoïkh nie brossaïem”: We don’t abandon our own.

‘Alternative narrative’

Russia provided a refuge for Medvedchuk, as it had for another disgraced Ukrainian, former president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych, toppled by the Maidan revolution (2013-2014), was convicted in absentia for high treason after fleeing to Russia. 

Stripped of his Ukrainian nationality, Medvedchuk, 69, realised he had no future in the country. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further marginalised Ukrainian forces loyal to Moscow. The Opposition Platform–For Life party, co-founded by Medvedchuk, was banned; the three television channels he unofficially controlled were also suspended.

Putin would have been infuriated by this turn of events. “He took it as a personal affront,” said one of his longtime associates, speaking anonymously, as cited by the Russian media outlet Verstka. “Medvedchuk and his channels played the role of a bridge and offered hope for resolving the Ukraine issue through political methods.” Medvedchuk’s exile meant the Kremlin lost its key means of influence in Ukraine and the country moved further away from the Russian orbit. 

According to Verstka, Medvedchuk fueled the ideological narrative the Russian leader wanted to hear, assuring him that there was enduring pro-Russia and pro-Putin feeling in Ukraine.

Medvedchuk’s misadventures in Ukraine did not mean an end to his involvement with his former country. When the Kremlin again attempted to regain control of the “Ukraine issue”, it was Medvedchuk who was given the job, with the aim of imposing an “alternative narrative”.  

Despised in Ukraine, Medvedchuk is not held in high regard in Russia either. However, “Medvedchuk’s allegiance and loyalty are crucial to explain why Putin has always relied on him,” said Ukrainian journalist Maksym Savchuk, author of a book dedicated to the oligarch’s connections.

In January 2023, the former Ukrainian MP broke his silence by writing a column in the newspaper “Izvestia”, where he presented the main ideas of the Russian camp. Medvedchuk positioned himself as a representative of the “peace party” against a Ukrainian elite labeled as “neo-Nazi” and belligerent, manipulated by the West. State media made an effort to bolster his stature. He appeared on Russia’s Channel One, where he was presented as “one of Ukraine’s most famous opponents”.

Ukraine’s ‘dead end’

Despite losing all credibility as well as his media holdings in Ukraine, Medvedchuk continues to propagate disinformation and pursue his own interests. Yanukovych was considered a capable manager; Medvedchuk, on the other hand, is known as an “ideas guy”. According to Meduza journalist Andrey Pertsev, he is indebted to the Kremlin but also aims to capitalise on his status as a privileged intermediary for Putin. “He is arguing the merits of his approach to obtain funds and is negotiating new deals in Russia,” Pertsev said.

Another Ukraine is the latest outlet for Medvedchuk’s ambitions. Officially, it is a public organisation located in central Moscow, a few metres from the ministry of foreign affairs. It specialises in targeted information, which it uses to try “to interact with Ukrainians with pro-Russia convictions, inside Ukraine and beyond its borders”, according to Savchuk.

Another Ukraine’s team is composed of journalists and commentators from the 112 Ukraine channel, banned in 2021 by the authorities in Kyiv, as well as disgraced political figures and “political technologists” – a Russian term for those engaged in political manipulation. 

Almost all are accused in Ukraine of separatism or treason. The nature of the project remains nebulous: Another Ukraine defines itself as a “movement” with Medvedchuk as “chairman of the council”. “It seems to me that they, themselves, do not know exactly what its true purpose is,” Savchuk noted. 

On the Another Ukraine website, the oligarch regularly publishes posts on Ukrainian domestic politics, the conduct of the war, and the need for an entente with Russia. However, “Medvedchuk is just the public face of this project,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Austria. Shekhovtsov said its communications strategy was entrusted to the Social Design Agency led by Gambashidze, one of the key figures of Russian disinformation campaigns targeting an international audience. 

Testing storylines 

Another Ukraine aims to appeal to that part of the Ukrainian population favourable to Russia and establish a connection with it, according to Shekhovtsov. One method involves taking the pulse of this population and measuring its reaction to various narratives. The project uses the image of the Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657) monument in central Kyiv, a symbolic choice given the dual legacy of the Cossack leader: While some consider him a symbol of the Ukrainian state, Another Ukraine lauds him for seeking protection from Moscow. 

In a 2021 publication of collected works, “Histoire partagée, mémoires divisées” (Shared history, divided memories), historians Volodymyr Masliychuk and Andrii Portnov note the inscription that paid homage to Khmelnytsky in Russian on the monument’s pedestal: “Russia, united and indivisible.”   

The project also manages “assistance centres” for Ukrainians who are temporarily in Russia and willing to settle there permanently.   

But according to Savchuk – who investigates corruption for Radio Svoboda, the leading international broadcaster in Russia and a division of US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – this new influence operation is not working. “In Ukraine, the project is seen as a collection of pariahs who Medvedchuk is feeding rubles so they will do what they used to, not so long ago, on his now-defunct television channels,” he said.   

Moreover, Another Ukraine is only accessible online inside Ukraine by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

Nevertheless, the movement has ambitions to extend its influence beyond Ukraine and Russia. In December it announced the opening of a Serbia division – headed by Dragan Stanojevic, a pro-Russian populist MP who has long done business in Ukraine.

Savchuk described the move as a “mutually beneficial collaboration”. “For Stanojevic, this branch is a way of appearing even closer to Putin among his electorate; for Medvedchuk, it is proof that his organisation is influential and that it is taking on an international dimension,” he said. “The fact that the Ukrainian government demanded its closure gave Another Ukraine even greater prominence – people started talking about it.” 

But turning Medvedchuk into a respected figure, recognised as a credible interlocutor abroad, may be an overly ambitious goal.

“I don’t think the Social Design Agency will be able to improve his image, even though that would be a fundamental goal if the project is to be effective,” said Shekhovtsov. “The public face of Another Ukraine should be a personality who gives interviews to the international media, someone who people want to know better. And here, that’s not the case – not in the slightest.”

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Two years after Russia’s invasion, Ukraine reorients its strategy to focus on defence

Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the lack of troops and ammunition and the depth of Russia’s field fortifications are forcing Kyiv to adopt a more defensive strategy. As it waits for more Western support, the Ukrainian army is holding out for better days.

Is “defend now, attack better later” Ukraine’s best shot? Two years after Russian forces invaded its territory, Ukraine has officially adopted a new strategy focused on defence. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky admitted that the situation on the front lines was “extremely difficult” in his daily address on February 19.

Since the failure of Kyiv’s summer counteroffensive, which cost Valerii Zaluzhnyi his position as commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, it is no longer time for major manoeuvres aimed at finding a breech in the Russian strategy, according to high-ranking Ukrainian sources. “We changed from an offensive to a defensive operation,” admitted the country’s new army chief, General Oleksandr Syrsky, in an interview with German channel ZDF broadcast on February 13.

Read moreZelensky’s A-team: Who is who among Ukraine’s new army commanders

It is hard to imagine any other option for the Ukrainian army. For months it has been up against an imposing Russian defensive line of trenches, concrete cones and minefields stretching 15 to 20km deep, preventing any armoured vehicle from piercing through.

“After regaining some of the territories that had been captured by the Russians, the summer of 2023 marked a turning point in the conflict. The deep Russian defensive lines exhausted the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Russians still have gaps and command problems, but they learn quickly and their ability to adapt should never be underestimated,” says Guillaume Lasconjarias, a military historian and lecturer at France’s Sorbonne University.

In the Ukrainian battlefield, the massive use of drones is also having a serious impact on offensive operations. . With these “eyes” positioned all along the front line by both sides, the battlefield has now become “transparent”, rendering obsolete the element of surprise so dear to military strategists.

“To concentrate efforts in one point is less and less possible. Instead, we are now seeing strategies based on multiple ‘stabbing’ motions. But in the end, this leads to exhaustion,” says Lasconjarias.

Ammo crisis

As a result, the front line is deadlocked and neither side seems able to bend their opponent. “As in World War I, we have reached such a technological level that we find ourselves at a dead end,” Zaluzhnyi admitted back in November 2023 in an interview published in British weekly The Economist.

“We must also take into account the recent change of leadership within the Ukrainian armed forces. A change of leadership requires the armed forces to take a moment to reorganise and reorient their structure and actions so they can be in line with the plans of the new chief of staff. Returning to a more defensive strategy in the short term may help to achieve this reorganisation,” says Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna.

The alarming shortage of ammunition is also forcing Kyiv to adopt a more cautious stance. In this static warfare, hundreds of thousands of shells are fired by each army every month. However, the blocking of aid by the US Congress and the delays in deliveries promised by Europe are severely handicapping Ukraine’s capacities.

According to military experts, the “fire ratio” – which measures the difference in the rate of artillery fire between enemies – is currently one to ten in favour of Russia.

“Even if it seemed to even out last summer, the volume of fire has always been in favour of the Russians. In the Russian-Soviet military tradition, artillery is an extremely important factor in shaping the battlefield. Faced with this large and diversified artillery, the Ukrainians have more precise cannons, such as the French Caesar or the American M777. But they have two problems: they have to move more often to avoid destruction, and they can fire back only when they know they are going to hit the target because of their lack of ammunition,” explains Guillaume Lasconjarias.

“Ukraine’s resources are becoming more limited,” adds Fasola. “It should also be stressed that most of the sophisticated equipment supplied to Kyiv has not been used effectively. It is illusory to think that the Ukrainian armed forces, which could not be trained in an in-depth way, could use these resources as efficiently as a Western army.”

Preserving Ukrainian national unity

The recent withdrawal from the eastern town of Avdiivka illustrates Kyiv’s new defensive posture. After months of fierce fighting, the Ukrainian General Staff made the difficult choice of a tactical withdrawal. If it offered a symbolic victory to the Kremlin, this decision also preserved the lives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. This decision is in stark contrast to the all-out tactics seen during the bloody battle of Bakhmut, a town in the Donbas region that fell into Russian hands in May 2023.

Along with flagging stocks of ammunition, dwindling manpower is another of the Ukrainian army’s major problems. According to a declassified document sent to the US Congress, Kyiv has suffered losses estimated at 70,000 dead and 120,000 wounded in two years. Russian losses are estimated at 315,000 dead or wounded.

In addition to the losses, the exhaustion of Ukrainian soldiers, some of whom have been deployed since the start of hostilities, means that rotations will also be necessary over the coming months.

“The real challenge for 2024 is for Ukraine to be able to regain some of the flexibility of its deployed brigades, which are now exhausted. It will also be necessary in order to mobilise newcomers, train them, equip them and take them to the front. This raises the question of the public’s ongoing acceptance of the conflict,” says Lasconjarias.

Watch moreIn Spain, Ukrainian civilians prepare for battle at a training centre near Madrid

A draft law wants to solve this problem. The controversial bill aimed at facilitating mobilisation was given the thumbs-up by the Ukrainian parliament on its first reading in early February. But the text has also triggered a lively public debate at a time when the stalemate in the war, the stagnation of the front and the uncertainty hanging over Western support have naturally affected the morale of both the troops and the population. Zelensky will have to work his way out of this down phase to preserve the national unity, which has so often been praised by his Western partners.

“From a military point of view, it seems impossible to avoid some form of conscription extension, but its political cost will be high,” says Fasola. “It also raises the problem of troop management, because if people are recruited by force or against their will, there are two possibilities: either you treat your troops as Russia does, meaning with no regard for their dignity and free will, or you end up with people who don’t want to fight or follow orders, which is very problematic for military strategy and effectiveness.”

‘War of attrition slowly but steadily in Russia’s favour’

While waiting to rebuild its offensive potential, the Ukrainian army will be trying over the coming months to inflict as many losses as possible on its Russian enemy while conserving its troops and ammunition. Beyond just holding out in a defensive posture, Ukraine is likely to continue its in-depth attacks against logistical infrastructures, particularly in the Russian border regions of Bryansk and Belgorod and in the annexed Crimean Peninsula in the hope of weakening Russia’s military system.

Kyiv’s official objective remains unchanged: to reconquer the territories annexed or occupied by Russia since 2014, which represents 18 percent of Ukraine’s territory.

Read moreMaidan Revolution protesters lament enduring corruption in Ukraine, 10 years on

According to analysts, only increased Western support could enable General Syrsky’s troops to move forward again. Such a scenario is far from certain, especially from the US: Democrats and Republicans are tearing each other apart in Congress over the question, and former president Donald Trump, who is hostile to continued US aid, is leading polls ahead of November’s US presidential election.

Moscow and Kyiv are “racing to rebuild their offensive capacities. If further Western funds are not released, if Russia gains the upper hand in one way or another, Moscow will have the opportunity to make further progress,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a researcher at the Washington-based Center for New American Security, told AFP. “The dynamic has changed,” says the analyst, stressing that “from Putin’s point of view, 2024 is a crucial year”.

According to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24, Russia should be able to continue supplying the front line with troops and equipment throughout the year, but to no gain or advantage, at least in the short term. “The front line is not likely to change radically. Over the next few months, Russia will continue to gradually erode Ukrainian control of the front line, which will nevertheless be very costly for Moscow,” predicts Fasola. “I expect the war to continue in the same way as it is today, as a war of attrition that is unfolding slightly, slowly, but steadily in Russia’s favour.”

This story has been adapted from its original in French.

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Zelensky’s A-team: Who is who among Ukraine’s new army commanders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky labelled it a “reset” while others have called it a “shake-up”: FRANCE 24 takes a look at the new team of army commanders tasked with helping Ukraine rebuild military momentum and ultimately win the war against Russia.

After weeks of speculation, Zelensky announced he was replacing popular military chief Valery Zaluzhny earlier this month while also unveiling a complete reshuffle of his top command.

To find out more about Zelensky’s new men, FRANCE 24 spoke to Ryhor Nizhnikau, a Ukraine specialist and senior research fellow at the Russia, the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Eurasia research programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Oleksandr Syrsky, commander-in-chief: ‘The Snow Leopard’ or ‘the Butcher’

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, 58, is hardly a new face to Ukrainians. Syrsky is a career military man who led Ukrainian troops against the Russia-backed separatist revolt in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, earning him the nickname, “Snow Leopard”.

Until his appointment as the army’s new commander, Syrsky – whose leadership style is described as traditionalist and in line with his Soviet army training – served as the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces. He is credited with fighting off the Russians around Kyiv at the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022 and for masterminding one of Ukraine’s most important victories in the war so far: the counteroffensive and liberation of the eastern Kharkiv region.

But the war has also cast something of a shadow over Syrsky’s name, earning him the much less flattering nickname “the Butcher”. According to Politico, this stems from Ukraine’s dire – and very deadly – defeat in the small but key city of Bakhmut which became known as the “meat grinder” and whose defence Syrsky oversaw.

According to Nizhnikau, Syrsky has a dual reputation. While he is viewed as a respected commander within the army, the general public has had a harder time swallowing the human losses he has been blamed for.

“While the polls show that [his predecessor], Zaluzhny, had 94 percent of the public’s trust, the number for Syrsky is something like 40 percent,” he explained.

One of Syrsky’s biggest challenges, Nizhnikau notes, will be to not only fill Zaluzhny’s boots, but to stop being compared to him.

Read moreUkraine’s Zelensky replaces top general Zaluzhny with Syrsky in dramatic military shakeup

Oleksandr Pavliuk, commander of armed forces: The model soldier

Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavliuk, 53, is Ukraine’s former deputy defence minister and was handpicked by Syrsky himself. In an interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Syrsky said Pavliuk – who in the past two years has served as Syrsky’s deputy – was the only name he ever considered for the position.

Pavliuk fought on the front line in Donetsk in 2014. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022, he was in charge of defending the eastern regions and later the defence of Kyiv. He is a decorated “Hero of Ukraine” soldier.

Nizhnikau said Pavliuk is a very respected model soldier whose only drawback is that he temporarily veered into the political world by becoming a deputy minister in early 2023 and could be viewed as having a foot both in the Zelensky administration and in the army.

Yurii Sodol, commander of the joint forces: What happened in Mariupol?

Lieutenant General Yurii Sodol, 53, has also been handed the “Hero of Ukraine” award and is the former head of Ukraine’s marine corps. Like many of the others, he brings with him frontline experience from 2014 and is described by Nizhnikau as a “solid soldier”.

Although very little is known about Sodol – he has quite successfully managed to stay out of the public eye – questions remain over his role in the defence of Mariupol, of which he was originally in charge. As Mariupol came under siege, the captain of the Azov regiment acted as de-facto commander. According to Nizhnikau, although Sodol has in no way been accused of any wrongdoing, his and others’ role in this tragedy is “heavily discussed in Ukraine”. 

Documents that will be declassified after the war may very well show he was just following orders, Nizhnikau said.

He added that Sodol has proven to be an effective and modern army commander and is well known for the modernisation of the Ukrainian marine corps in line with NATO standards.

Ihor Plahuta, commander of territorial defence forces: The one with the missing biography

Major General Ihor Plahuta, 56, has been described by Ukrainska Pravda as “the most mysterious and ambiguous appointment” in Zelensky’s new team of commanders, with no trace of a past prior to 2005.

Plahuta’s documented experience with the army includes serving as commander for Ukraine’s Separate Presidential Brigade, the army’s 169th Training Centre, and the Southern Territorial Command of the Internal Troops of the interior ministry. More recently, he was the deputy commander of the Khortytsia operational-strategic group, which is a formation of Ukrainian ground troops fighting the Russian invasion.

Nizhnikau said Plahuta is by far the most politically risky appointment, not least because he – during his time with the interior ministry’s internal troops – was part of the force that stormed the Euromaidan protests back in 2014.   

But Nizhnikau said this does not seem to have counted against him so far. The Euromaidan experience does not necessarily discredit Plahuta because he was “quite reasonable – trying to negotiate with the protesters and avoiding unnecessary clashes – so most people seem to think it’s not that big of a deal”.

There are others in Zelensky’s government who were also on the “wrong” – that is, the pro-Russian – side of the Euromaidan protests, Nizhnikau noted.

Ihor Skybyuk, commander of air assault forces

Brigadier General Ihor Skybyuk, 48, is the youngest of the pack, and takes on his new role after serving as chief of staff and deputy commander of Ukraine’s air assault forces. Prior to that, he served as commander of the 80th Air Assault Brigade, known as the “Firefighters”, which took part in the 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive.

Ukrainska Pravda cites official reports saying that it was thanks to Skybyuk’s “decisive and timely” actions that the eastern Ukrainian city of Izium was liberated. Skybyuk earned the “Hero of Ukraine” title for his efforts.

The newspaper described him as a balanced and calm leader who never shouts at his subordinates. 

Nizhnikau also cited Skybyuk’s reputation for bravery, adding that the Firefighters have “always been sent to the most difficult parts of the front and, at times, had to stop Russian offenses in open fields”.

Nizhnikau said the new military command seems to be a step in the right direction as Ukraine struggles to regain momentum on the ground after months of impasse, calling the new appointments generally positive “and, in some cases, very positive”. 

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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)


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‘Too high a price’: Ukraine’s war widows forge a path towards an uncertain future

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel have died since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. The families left behind face building a new life amid an ongoing war with no end in sight.

Anastasia, 40, found out her husband had died while watching the news. Oleksii Dzhunkivskyi was well known in Ukraine as a champion boxer turned children’s coach who ran his own gym in Irpin, a satellite city outside of Kyiv.  

When Russia invaded, the family decided that Anastasia and their daughter would leave Irpin while Oleksii stayed behind as a volunteer working with the military to help civilians. “He delivered food, water, medicine, and helped with the evacuation. In total he managed to save about 50 people,” Anastasia says. 

As Russian forces occupied the city, intent on using Irpin as a stepping stone to capture the nearby Ukrainian capital, the “conditions were terrible”, Anastasia says. “There was no [internet] connection at all, constant shelling, no lights, no water.”   

On March 23, Oleksii said he planned to leave Irpin and reunite with his wife and daughter – right after he helped one final family to evacuate. 

But a day later the news reported that Oleksii was dead. Eyewitnesses said he had been shot after Russian soldiers entered his boxing gym. 

Read more‘If you stay, you will die’: How one front-line volunteer is saving lives in Ukraine’s Donbas


Anastasia Dzhunkivska and her late husband Oleksii. © Anastasia Dzhunkivska


Tens of thousands dead 

Neither Kyiv nor Moscow releases official figures on military losses – Ukrainian officials say disclosing the figures could harm its war effort.  

The United Nations estimates that 10,000 civilians have been killed as a result of war in Ukraine since February 2022 and 18,500 wounded.  

The military death toll is thought to be significantly higher. A Ukrainian group that collects data about the war, the Book of Memory project, said in November it had confirmed the deaths of nearly 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers but expected the real death toll was more than 30,000. 

A New York Times report in August estimated that 70,000 members of the Ukrainian military had been killed while Russia is thought to have lost 120,000 soldiers so far. 

On both sides, the death toll surged in winter and spring 2023 during the battle for Bakhmut, an eastern city given the grim moniker the “meat grinder” as hundreds of troops were killed or injured there every day for weeks on end.  

Watch more‘It’s always scary’: Medics in Ukraine’s ‘meat grinder’ city of Bakhmut


“Oleksiy often told me on the phone about military life in the trenches and about the fighting. In Bakhmut, he said the war was most intense in the air – the positions were constantly shelled, and there were huge losses of life,” says Juliya Selutina, 40.  

Her late husband was a lawyer and entrepreneur living in Kyiv who, when the Russian invasion began, immediately decided to fight for Ukraine. 

By May 2022 Oleksiy had completed army training and was sent to the front line in Bakhmut while Juliya and their teenage daughter fled to safety overseas, living in a village in northern England.  

A couple stand together looking into the distance with blue sky behind them.
Juliya Selutina with her late husband Oleksiy. © Juliya Selutina

Oleksiy sustained a life-threatening injury from an aerial attack on July 2022 and died three days after being admitted to hospital. Juliya rushed back to Ukraine as soon as she found out he was wounded – a nine-day visit that ended up including her husband’s funeral.  

Finding support 

Juliya only truly started confronting her grief when she returned to live in Ukraine in late 2022. “I felt a new wave of pain. It was then that I finally realised that Oleksiy was gone,” she says. 

Her 14-year-old daughter returned with her to Ukraine despite the danger, insisting she wanted to live in the country that her father died for. The project Juliya was working on in the IT sector lost funding and she became unemployed, so they now live off a state military pension granted to her daughter.  

Military widows in Ukraine are entitled to a one-off financial payment from the state and other financial payments, such as monthly sums from regional authorities, depending on the region in which they live.

No such funding is available for Anastasia, whose husband was not in the military when he died. When he was alive, Anastasia did not work. During the Russian occupation of Irpin, Anastasia and her daughter lost their house and all of their possessions. Now she volunteers distributing goods to those in need and relies on her husband’s friends for financial support. 

Watch moreWar in Ukraine: Irpin residents return to ruins after Russian withdrawal


Anna Tymoshenko, 33, has also not received any financial support since her partner, Serhiy, died in August 2023, as she and Serhiy were not married.

Serhiy had served in Ukraine’s army for years, working his way up the ranks to become a decorated officer. From February 2022, he was based in east Ukraine fighting in Mykolaiv, Kherson and Donetsk. 

Anna was four months pregnant with Serhiy’s child when she received a phone call informing her that he had died from wounds incurred in a mine blast.  

Since then, she has been living in a state of shock. “The whole family keeps waiting for him to come back from the war, for his messages or calls. Although we know it’s impossible, you can’t tell your heart what to think,” she says.

Anna works in the Odesa district as a family doctor, and would have liked some social support from the state. Her child will be eligible for financial support after it is born. 

“Social workers could help families of fallen soldiers with the necessary documents, provide psychological and legal assistance, and not leave them alone with such a great grief,” she says.     

Instead, she says, those left behind are “learning to cope with their problems on their own”. 

“[But] it’s hard to be alone and pregnant when you had your whole life ahead of you and so many plans for the future.”

‘Life has been divided’ 

There is a state-run help line offering psychological support for widows in Ukraine, but both Anastasia and Juliya have found their children gave them the biggest sense of purpose in their grief. “The realisation that I was the only one left for our daughter helped me to hold on,” Juliya says. 

For Daria Pogodaieva, 32, one of the hardest parts of her new life is helping her 4-year-old son understand that his father is gone. “He remembers his father, and that he loves him and is missing him,” she says. “But he doesn’t know what death is. He doesn’t know what forever is. He doesn’t understand that he will never see his father again.” 

Daria met her late husband Dymtro in Kyiv, and he worked as an engineer at her family’s pharmaceutical business. When the Russian invasion began, they never spoke about whether Dymtro would join the army. “But I knew he had this feeling that he had to do it,” she says. “He was that kind of person.” 

By January 2023, Dymtro was working as a scout in a marine brigade. He was on the front lines when Ukraine launched its counter-offensive in summer 2023.  

Two men pictured in military uniforms
Daria Pogodaieva’s late husband, Dymtro (left), and Anna Tymoshenko‘s late partner, Serhiy (right). © Daria Pogodaieva / Viktor Zalevskiy

With positive news of Ukrainian villages being liberated from Russian occupation came personal tragedy for Daria. Dymtro died on July 15 with two other troops in Makarivka, a recently liberated village, while helping to move large weaponry.  

“His watch stopped at 13:45,” she says. “That was the moment when the bombs fell on them.” 

Daria’s grief has made her question the war overall. “When Dymtro died, I couldn’t understand the purpose of his death. Was it worth giving his life for this? I still have some hope for victory but, at the moment, there is no clear perspective on when that could happen.” 

For others, grief has made Ukrainian victory a necessity. “We have paid too high a price already,” says Anna. “We want to be a free people [so] we must defend ourselves to the last.” 

“I have a great hope that we will see a quick victory because I really want to believe that these terrible losses have not been in vain,” adds Juliya. 

For Daria, the only certainty is that war has changed her life – and the lives of so many others in Ukraine – irreversibly. After nearly two years of fighting, air raids, bombings, drone attacks and now grief have become daily realities.  

“This is maybe the scariest thing to do to people,” she says. “You get used to this new life and there is not so much hope that things can be the same as they were. Life has been divided; before his death and after his death. And the life I had before is never coming back.” 

Daria Pogodaieva translated accounts for this report.

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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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