Ukraine vows triumph over Russian ‘darkness’ on two-year anniversary of war

Ukraine on Saturday vowed to triumph over Russian “darkness” as it entered a new year of war weakened by a lack of Western aid and with Moscow emboldened by fresh gains. To mark the second anniversary, a virtual summit of G7 leaders was set to take place at Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral Saturday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attending. Follow FRANCE 24’s coverage of the two-year war anniversary.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” at dawn on February 24, 2022, many expected victory within days, but Ukraine fought back, forcing Russian troops into humiliating retreats.

Since then, however, Ukraine has suffered setbacks, with the failure of its 2023 counteroffensive.

  • Ukraine faces problem finding new soldiers

Ukrainian army is facing problems finding fresh soldiers as, in addition to 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. Kyiv passed a controversial bill to tighten rules on mobilization, as army recruiters roam the streets.

Ukraine’s military command has said 450,000 to 500,000 additional recruits are needed for the next phase of the war. Even if Ukraine succeeds in mobilizing that number, which is unlikely, it still would not be able to match the manpower of Russia, which has more than three times Ukraine’s population.

Lawmakers have spent months mulling over a controversial proposal to increase the conscription pool, as many Ukrainian men continue to evade the war in Ukrainian cities. Watch our report below.



  • ‘We need to convince at least 5 million people to come back,’ says Ukraine deputy minister.

FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg is joined by Tetyana Berezhna, Ukraine’s deputy minister of economy, in Kyiv. According to her, Ukraine needs its economy to grow by 7%, “and for that, we need to convince at least 5 million people to come back”. To achieve that figure, Ukrainian authorities started a “grant program” to help Ukrainians “creating companies”.



  • Putin ‘undermining democracy’ across globe, fighting military war in Ukraine & ‘hybrid war’ in West

Inna Sovsun, member of Ukraine’s parliament, deputy head of “GOLOS” Party, and senior lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, delivers her analysis of Russian aggression as the Russia-Ukraine war enters its third year.



  • Ukraine’s Zelensky vows victory as Western leaders visit Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky promised victory against Russia on the second anniversary of the invasion on Saturday as his troops fight on despite a lack of Western aid and recent Russian gains.

“We will win,” he said at a ceremony at Kyiv’s Gostomel airport, which was targeted by Russia in the first days of the all-out assault in 2022.


He spoke alongside the Canadian, Italian and Belgian prime ministers and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen who came to Kyiv to mark the date.  

Ukraine’s military chief Oleksandr Syrsky said he was confident of victory “because light always conquers darkness”.

  • EU chiefs praise Ukrainian ‘resistance’ in visit to Kyiv

FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg reports from Kyiv, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed that Europe would back Ukraine until it was “finally free” as she and three other Western leaders arrived in Kyiv to show solidarity on the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The visit by von der Leyen and the prime ministers of Italy, Canada and Belgium – Giorgia Meloni, Justin Trudeau and Alexander De Croo – was a show of support as Ukraine suffers shortages of military supplies that are hurting it on the battlefield as Moscow grinds out territorial gains.

  • UK pledges £245 million to boost Ukraine artillery reserves

Britain announced on Saturday a new £245 million ($311 million) defence package to help boost the production of “urgently needed artillery ammunition” for Ukraine, two years after war broke out with Russia.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said Ukraine’s armed forces “against all odds” had recaptured large parts of the land seized by Russia in its 2022 invasion. “But they cannot win this fight without the support of the international community – and that’s why we continue to do what it takes to ensure Ukraine can continue to fight towards victory,” he added.

The new funding will be used to “procure and invigorate supply chains to produce urgently needed artillery ammunition to boost Ukraine’s reserves”, said the ministry of defence (MoD). Ukraine has been “particularly noted for its highly effective use of its artillery”, the MoD added.

In an update to parliament on Thursday, Shapps confirmed the delivery of an additional 200 Brimstone anti-tank missiles, bringing the total number to more than 1,300. He also announced the United Kingdom will co-lead an international coalition that will supply thousands of drones to Ukraine.

  • 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, as FRANCE 24’s Grégoire Sauvage reports.

  • Ukraine vows triumph over Russian ‘darkness’

Ukrainian officials voiced defiance on the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, despite a bleak picture for Kyiv. “I am convinced that unity is our victory. And it will definitely happen. Because light always conquers darkness!” the Ukrainian army’s chief Oleksandr Syrsky said on social media.

Western leaders are in Kyiv and have pledged fresh millions to boost Ukraine’s military,   But the overall picture remains dark for Ukraine due to the US Congress blocking a vital $60 billion aid package, on top of delays in promised European deliveries. US President Joe Biden renewed calls for Republican lawmakers to unblock the additional funding, warning that “history is waiting” and “failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will not be forgotten”.

  • Ukraine attacks Russian steel plant with drones, Ukrainian source says

Ukraine attacked a steel plant belonging to Russia’s Novolipetsk RAO with drones overnight in a joint operation by the GUR military intelligence agency and SBU security service, a Ukrainian source said on Saturday.

The source told Reuters the attack had caused a major fire at the plant and staff had been evacuated.

“Raw materials from this enterprise are used to manufacture Russian missiles, artillery, drones. Therefore, it is a legitimate goal for Ukraine,” the source said, without specifying the location of the plant.

  • Western leaders visit Kyiv for two-year war anniversary

Saturday’s anniversary will see visits by Western leaders including EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who praised Ukraine‘s “extraordinary resistance” as she arrived in the capital.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also arrived in Kyiv to take part in the G7 summit.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters & AP)



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A Ukrainian soldier in France speaks about writing and recovery

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Ukrainian soldier and author Oleksandr “Teren” Budko spoke to FRANCE 24 about his path to recovery after losing both legs, his approach to writing and his patriotism.

On a recent evening at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in France, Oleksandr “Teren” Budko stood with his interpreter before a large audience of Ukrainians and other nationalities. Blond and with a boyish face, the 27-year-old Ukrainian soldier was on the French leg of his European book tour for “Story of a Stubborn Man”. The autobiography interspersed with memories from the front lines recounts his road from civilian to soldier and then to battle-scarred veteran.

Budko began writing the book in October 2022, just two months after losing both legs after a shell landed near him in a trench during the counteroffensive for the city of Kharkiv. “I found inspiration for my writing on the front lines,” he said. Even before the injury, he had been publishing short texts accompanied by pictures of him and his buddies in combat gear as they worked to repel the Russian enemy.

Athletically built and wearing a quilted blue shirt and shorts that showed his prosthetics, Budko was as comfortable as a stand-up comedian in front of a crowd. “There is no truth in the leg,” he said, repeating a Ukrainian proverb that suggests a person who has walked a lot cannot tell the truth because they are tired.

Appreciation for a war hero

Yet he wanted to get as close to the truth as possible while writing his book. He wanted to capture the voices of his comrades and the sights and the sounds of what he experienced in eastern Ukraine. He would try to write, but then get stuck with month-long bouts of writer’s block. A trip to Florida, where he went to get fitted with sports prosthetics so he could participate in the Invictus Games, finally changed something in him. “I was there under the sun, I swam in the sea in Miami, I ate at McDonald’s – and this gave me the perfect circumstances to write this book,” he said.

Thousands of miles away from Ukraine, he revisited his prior experience as a Ukrainian soldier. His days were filled with rehabilitation but, at night, he would write. Like plunging into the nearly clear waters off the Atlantic coast, he immersed himself in his memories of fighting the war and typed them up on a computer.

“Some of the people I wrote about in the book are dead, and that’s why it was so hard to write the text,” said Budko. Luckily, many people in the book did survive, “including my comrade Artem”, he said, nodding toward a young man in a wheelchair sitting in the front row. The audience responded with lengthy applause in appreciation of the two young men for their sacrifice – and for coming home alive.

Memories from the war

Budko agreed to an interview the next day to talk about what led him to fight in the war and his memories from that time. After a visit to Paris‘s Carnavalet Museum, with its elaborate displays dedicated to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the young man in a black hoodie settled at a kebab restaurant on the Rue des Rosiers, an eclectic street in the Marais neighbourhood of central Paris. He was accompanied by his editor and a lively group of young Ukrainians who, judging by their level of excitement, appeared to be visiting the French capital for the first time.

Sitting with his back against the wall, a bit apart from the group, Budko suddenly seemed less like a comedian and more like a wise old man. “I wrote this book for civilians and for people who had never seen war, so they could understand what happens on the front lines,” he said. 

Through his interpreter, Budko said he was in Kyiv when the war began on February 24, 2022. “I signed up as a volunteer because I wanted to defend my country from the enemy and help it gain independence,” he said.

Although he had never held a weapon before in his life, he joined the Carpathian Sich 49th Infantry Battalion, a battalion of the Ukrainian Ground Forces established in May 2022. After some training and taking part in the defence of the capital Kyiv, Budko was deployed to northeastern Ukraine near Izium.

Most people in the battalion were volunteers who accepted the consequences of their choice, remembered Budko. “Of course Bakhmut and Avdiivka exist (two besieged cities known for scenes of the most ferocious violence of the war), but the life of a soldier is not only about fighting,” he added.

Budko recalled one moment when he ate a slice of foie gras for breakfast: “For me, it was a sign I was still alive,” he said. Despite being trained as killing machines, Budko said he and his fellow volunteers continued civilian life to the best of their ability, preparing traditional meals like borscht, a red beetroot soup, and taking the time to enjoy them with each other. This also meant saving abandoned cats and dogs and evacuating elderly people from zones that had become too perilous for them to stay.

An invincible optimism

From the trenches, the soldiers watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches and followed news reports on military support from abroad. “We were interested in how the war was going to end, but of course the weapons situation was important too, because without weapons it was going to be impossible to end the war,” said Budko. “Despite the many weapons given, it was never enough.”

Writing the book also allowed Budko to relive some of the moments from “one of the best times of my life”, he said. The adventure, the camaraderie and the moments of peace, such as when he would lie down on the ground with a book, seem to have left Budko with a sense of nostalgia devoid of any bitterness. But today he preferred not to talk about the day he suffered the injury that caused him to lose both legs: “There is no trauma, but I’ve told the story too many times.”

Budko said he has always been endowed with an invincible optimism. He said what changed after the injury is that he “became braver and more open to people”.

Thinking back to his time in the service, the young man recalled the discovery of a small kobzar (a Ukrainian bard) figurine he made one day while digging trenches in the Kharkiv region. The statue was more confirmation that the lands were Ukrainian, he said, because kobzars never existed in Russia. It further convinced him of his role in preserving Ukrainian territorial integrity.

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Budko likened the war to a “David against Goliath” struggle and voiced a warning about the existential nature of the threat: “The less support Ukraine gets, the closer the enemy gets to other European countries.”

With this in mind, his goal today is to “contribute to the Western population’s understanding of the war, and encourage them to support us so that they can help obtain a Ukrainian victory as soon as possible”.

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Why are European armies struggling to recruit soldiers?

European countries’ efforts to strengthen their armies in the face of the increased threat from Russia have clashed against young Europeans’ unwillingness to join the armed forces.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed European countries to increase their military spending and strengthen their defence, as they scramble to reverse the shrinking of their armies that has occurred over the past decade or so.

But their efforts have met a huge challenge: a lack of recruits willing to join their military forces.

Despite new investment and a recent recruitment push, Germany recently announced that its troop numbers fell slightly last year. The country’s defence ministry said earlier this month that its army – the Bundeswehr – shrank by about 1,500 troops in 2023, for a total of around 181,500 men and women by the end of the year. The Bundeswehr’s plan is to increase its ranks to 203,000 troops by 2031.

The UK also recently admitted it’s struggling to find recruits, with the country’s Ministry of Defence saying that 5,800 more people left the forces than joined them in 2023. The UK Defence Journal writes that the army has not met its recruitment targets every year since 2010.

“The problem is one that all European countries share – including France, Italy, Spain,” Vincenzo Bove, professor of political science at Warwick University in UK, told Euronews. “I don’t think there’s one country that’s spared from it.”

According to Bove, it’s unclear when exactly attracting recruits became a problem for European armies. “From my understanding, it started at least over 10 years ago in countries like the UK,” Bove said. “In the US, it started at least 20 years ago.”

What’s certain is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has added pressure on European countries to solve the issue. But why are European countries struggling to recruit soldiers?

1. Young people’s values have changed

According to Bove, the ideological distance between society at large and military forces has gotten wider in recent years.

“If you take a random sample of young Europeans, they are ideologically very far from a sample of soldiers from the same country in terms of how they see society, their aspirations, what they want to do,” Bove said. “And this distance is growing over time.”

Bove mentioned that recent surveys have shown that young civilians are overwhelmingly against wars, against increasing spending on the military and against military operations abroad; they are also more individualistic and less patriotic than those serving in the military forces.

While there’s no clear explanation for why this gap is getting wider, Bove said this might be related to the end of conscription and the fact that young people are no longer exposed to the military, with most of them not even knowing someone working in the armed forces.

Dr Sophy Antrobus, Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College London, agreed with Bove, telling Euronews that the smaller the forces get, the less civilians actually see them. “In most parts of the country [the UK], you hardly see any people in uniform, there’s not that awareness of the military as an available career.”

2. Unappealing salary

Another reason is that working in the military has become a job like any other, Bove said, and the armed forces are competing with the private sector to get recruits – but they’re at a disadvantage.

“Because of the challenges in the military sector, the quality of life, relocations, international assignments, uncertainty and the possibility of dying, you need to pay very high salaries to convince people to apply and join the armed forces,” Bove said. “Given that they don’t, young Europeans would rather accept a job in the civilian sector.”

Talking about the UK specifically, Antrobus – who served in the Royal Air Forces for 20 years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan – added that there isn’t been much investment in the army, and the state of accommodation for the armed forces “is pretty bad,” she said. 

“Application times for getting in the armed forces are also quite long too, and the younger generations – particularly now – expect things to happen quickly. If there’s a job that comes out in the public sector in the meantime, that’s a more attractive option than waiting around for the army to give you an option,” she said.

3. The demographic decline

European armed forces are also struggling to find potential applicants as the population of the continent is ageing and shrinking. 

Bove argues that the size of the armed forces has already decreased to adapt to this change, with the British, Italian and French armies, for example, now being “pretty much half the size it used to be 10 years or 20 years ago.” 

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What a smaller pool of applicants might mean for European armies now is that the quality of recruits accepted might not be up to the same strict standards armed forces have imposed for decades – which could in turn allow for dodgy individuals like neo-Nazi sympathisers to slip in.

According to Antrobus, there’s also a problem of “health and fitness” with young people. In the US, she said, there are more people in the age group between 17 and 24 who are largely unfit, with obesity being a big issue. If this trend continues, the armies will have nobody to recruit by 2035-2040.”

What future for the European armies?

European armies are a bit in “panic mode,” Bove said, as they scramble to find new recruits in the face of the increased threat from Moscow.

 “Immigration could be the answer,” Bove said, citing that countries like Spain, France and Portugal are already considering ways for immigrants to join the army and get citizenship after a few years in the forces.

“That’s probably the best way forward,” Bove said. “Because you can’t force people to fight for you and join the armed forces, and people are not going accept a return of conscription.” 

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“It’s an intractable problem, to be honest,” Antrobus said. “It all starts with the politics, the political will and interest.” A solution to European armies’ recruitment process, Antrobus said, would involve things like “making the services more attractive, pay a bit better, certainly improving living standards – and it’s just not high enough in the political agenda compared to the cost of living and the economy.”

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The black market price to get out of Gaza: $9,000

Many Palestinians have been desperately trying to leave the Gaza Strip and get to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing since October 7 and Israel’s subsequent military campaign, which has killed more than 25,000 people, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. However, it’s nearly impossible to get an authorisation to leave the enclave, especially if you don’t have another nationality and a foreign government working on your behalf.

Issued on:

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Many Gazans are resorting to paying exorbitant sums to intermediaries with connections to Egyptian authorities, according to testimonies gathered by our team, to try and leave Gaza. But as increasing light is shed on this practice, many fear that even this way of leaving the country will no longer be possible.

“You need to pay $9,000 (roughly €8,200) per person to get your name on a list of people authorised to leave Gaza,” a Gaza resident told our team via the messaging service WhatsApp. In light of this situation, hundreds of people have started online fundraisers in the hopes of raising enough money to pay a black market passage for their family members trapped in a war zone.

The average salary in Gaza is between $500 and $600 (equivalent to €460 to €550). 

So who are these people who can get you out, if you can raise that much money? Mysterious intermediaries who, our witnesses say, have been asking for higher and higher sums since the start of the war.

This well-oiled system is known locally as “al-tansikat al-misriya”, which translates roughly to “Egyptian coordination”.

‘If you talk about it, your name is added to a blacklist’

Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist who has been investigating the situation, says that it amounts to “corruption on a wide scale”.

 

It is the most vulnerable people who have to go through these intermediaries, these dealers in misery. Injured people, those with serious illnesses like cancer— people who are desperate to leave Gaza as soon as possible. 

These intermediaries are located in the places in the south of the Gaza Strip, where people have fled, especially in Khan Younis and Rafah. 

If you pay, then your name will appear on the lists published by the Rafah crossing relatively quickly.  

There are different government bodies involved in this practice— the Egyptian passport and immigration services, the army, the intelligence services and others. 

Everyone knows this is going on. At the same time, there is clearly an omerta going on [Editor’s note: a policy or code of keeping silent about crimes and refusing to cooperate with the police] because, if you talk about it, your name goes on a black list of people forbidden from leaving Gaza. 

Since the start of the war, about 6,000 Palestinians have been able to leave the Gaza Strip [Editor’s note: The FRANCE 24 Observers team has been unable to independently verify these numbers].

 

The Rafah border crossing regularly posts on its website lists of people authorised to leave the enclave. 

Most of them are Palestinians with dual nationality who have been repatriated thanks to the intervention of their respective countries or those with serious injuries who need emergency care. 

For people who only have Palestinian nationality, pretty much the only option to get out is to pay this network of intermediaries. Their names will then be published on the website of the Rafah border crossing. People in Gaza say usually those who have paid bribes are added to lists of Egyptian nationals who will be evacuated. 

This practice isn’t new. It began during the 2007 Gaza siege, according to a man from Gaza who spoke to our team from Europe, where he now lives.

 

I have a friend who left Gaza in 2017 because he had a scholarship to study abroad. Back then, if you wanted to leave the Gaza Strip, you’d have to make a request with the Palestinian ministry of the interior. But it might take a few months before you got a response. And, because he didn’t have a lot of time, he decided to go the black market route. 

Everything goes by word of mouth. My friend went to see an intermediary who had links with the Egyptian intelligence services. He took a photo of his passport and then sent it to his contacts. In a few weeks, his name was on the lists of people authorised to leave published by the Rafah border crossing. 

Back in 2017, this “authorisation” to leave the territory would have cost between $2,000 and 3,000 [Editor’s note: between €1,800 and €2,700].

By 2020, the practice was so widespread that there were even so-called tourist agencies offering this service. They were well established in Gaza and in Cairo, Egypt and offered to “facilitate” the journey for Palestinians who wanted to leave Gaza.        

However, since the start of the war, these agencies have closed.

In parallel, the price of these so-called “coordinations” has increased considerably, reaching $9,000 [roughly €8,000] per person.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted several people who had started online fundraising campaigns to try to raise the money for loved ones to leave Gaza by these illegal routes. However, no one wanted to speak to us. They said they were afraid that if there was media coverage about this practice then it would be suspended and their hopes of evacuating their loved ones would end.

‘There are also intermediaries in Europe’

Our team spoke to a man from Gaza who now lives in France. He is currently trying to get his mother out of Gaza. He said he wasn’t sure how to feel about this practice.

On one hand, you want to denounce this practice. But on the other hand, you are afraid that it might be stopped and, in the end, it’s us who would suffer. 

I personally paid an intermediary in France because, yes, there are intermediaries in Europe, too. You have to pay in cash so that there is no trace. 

I’m concerned because it seems like this type of evacuation of Palestinians has been suspended since the media like the Guardian started reporting on it. 

The Facebook page of the body that runs the border post in Rafah hasn’t published any lists of people who are authorised to leave since January 11. Before, they were posting lists almost daily.   

Our team reached out to the State Information Service, the official press office of the Egyptian government, in an attempt to find out more about these accusations. 

More than 25,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli bombs and military operations, most of them women, children and teenagers, according to the Hamas ministry of health. Hamas is the ruling party in Gaza.   



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Ukraine lets slip the cats of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrsky the cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaybyk the lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karolina the mother

Yabchanka says he was never a cat person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herych the high-bred

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

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

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

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

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

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

The enemy’s cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Elon Musk: Diversity-based hiring is antisemitic

KRAKÓW, Poland — Elon Musk has upped his war on woke by saying that diverse hiring policies are “fundamentally antisemitic” and discriminatory, shortly after a private visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp.

The controversial tech billionaire was speaking at a European Jewish Association (EJA) conference in the Polish city of Kraków, amid rising criticism that his social media platform — X, formerly Twitter — has allowed rampant hate speech to spread. Musk himself sparked outrage in November when he publicly agreed with an antisemitic tweet claiming that Jewish communities have been “pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.”

While his trip to Poland allowed him to push back at the charges of antisemitism, he also seized the opportunity to turn his fire against one of his favorite bugbears: “Diversity, equity and inclusion” policies.

“Always be wary of any name that sounds like it could come out of a George Orwell book. That’s never a good sign,” Musk told American right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who joined him onstage. “Sure, diversity, equity and inclusion all sound like nice words, but what it really means is discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation and it’s against merit and thus I think it’s fundamentally antisemitic.”

Musk, who confirmed that he does indeed write all of his own posts on X, has been vocal about his feelings toward diversity, equity and inclusion, including by claiming, without evidence, that diverse hiring initiatives at Boeing and United Airlines have made air travel less safe.

His comments feed into a broader debate on inclusive hiring policies, most especially on U.S. college campuses. The resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay over a plagiarism scandal was seized upon by Republicans, who claim top schools are examples of American institutions in the throes of a leftist political transformation. Critics argue this radical leftist culture on campuses is stoking antisemitism, and top university leaders hit heavy flak last month for their poor handling of a congressional hearing on the bullying of Jews.

On Monday, Shapiro went easy on Musk, steering the conversation towards meritocracy rather than Musk’s increasingly controversial social media outbursts and allowing the Tesla boss to continue his attacks on a subject he has made a great deal of mileage out of.

“I think we need return to … a focus on merit and it doesn’t matter whether you’re man, woman, what race you are, what beliefs you have, what matters is how good you are at your job or what are your skills,” Musk said.

In defense of X

At the EJA conference — a daylong summit on the rise of antisemitism in the aftermath of the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas — Musk also defended X against accusations of antisemitism and hate speech, saying freedom of speech must be protected even when controversial. According to the billionaire, who cited audits without offering further details, X has “the least amount of antisemitism” among all social media platforms, adding that TikTok has “five times the amount of antisemitism” that X has.

“Relentless pursuit of the truth is the goal with X,” Musk said. “And allowing people to say what they want to say even if it’s controversial, provided it does not break the law, is the right thing to do.”

Musk has faced widespread criticism over the rise of disinformation and hate content since he bought the social media platform for $44 billion in 2022, criticism that intensified in the weeks following the escalation of the Israel-Hamas war last October.

The reported spread of fake and misleading content on the conflict led the EU to launch an investigation into X. And things got worse for Musk after progressive watchdog group Media Matters published a report alleging that X had run ads for major companies next to neo-Nazi posts.

The Media Matters report and Musk’s endorsement of an antisemitic post sparked a backlash from several public figures and culminated in an advertiser exodus, as multiple companies pulled their ads from the site, including giants such as Apple, IBM, Disney and Coca-Cola. According to a New York Times report, this could result in a loss of up to $75 million for X.

Musk has since apologized for the antisemitic post — admitting he should not have replied to it — and then traveled to Israel to meet with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in what could be seen as an apology tour.

Speaking about his visit to Israel, Musk said indoctrinated Hamas fighters have to be “killed or imprisoned” to prevent them from killing more Israelis. And the next step is fighting further indoctrination in Gaza, he added.

“The indoctrination of hate into kids in Gaza has to stop,” Musk said. “I understand the need to invade Gaza, and unfortunately some innocent people will die, there’s no way around it, but the most important thing to ensure is that afterwards the indoctrination … stops.”

According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, Israeli airstrikes and ground attacks have killed over 25,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 60,000 since the attack by Hamas on October 7, in which Israeli officials say the militant group killed over 1,200 nationals and foreigners and took 240 hostages.

Musk said the West has shifted to a mentality that equates smaller, weaker groups with goodness.

“We need to stop the principle that the normally weaker party is always right, this is simply not true,” Musk said. “If you are oppressed or the weaker party it doesn’t mean you’re right.”

Musk — who joked multiple times that he considers himself “Jew by aspiration” and “by association” — was supposed to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp on Tuesday alongside other speakers and political leaders from the EJA conference, but he instead took a private tour of the site with his young son.

The Auschwitz Museum itself was among one of the entities that had called out Musk for failing to contain antisemitic content.



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Sweden’s call for population to prepare for war sparks panic and criticism

It’s been described as a bombshell moment. The upper echelons of Sweden’s government and defence forces last week shocked the nation by explicitly warning that war might come to Sweden, and that each and every Swede should prepare themselves. While some have taken the warning seriously and flocked to the stores to stock up on fuel and survival kits, others have accused the country’s leaders of fear-mongering.

Gustav Wallbom, a 37-year-old entrepreneur and farmer who was conscripted into Sweden’s compulsory military service before it was put on hold between 2010 and 2017, was not the least bit surprised by the call for Swedes to ready themselves for war.

“The fact that Russia, which is very near Sweden, is unreliable is not something new, and all the cases of espionage lately and Russia’s attempts to influence [public opinion] just add to that,” he said.

Heeding the call from officials, Wallbom, like many other Swedes, immediately headed to the hardware store to stock up on equipment for his and his family’s “crisis kit”.

“I bought fuel, lamp oil, matches and water tanks,” said Wallbom, who is a military reservist and who, as late as last week, received a letter announcing his new posting in the case of war.

Gustav Wallbom, a Swedish military reservist, was not the least surprised by the officials’ warnings of the dangers of Russia. © Gustav Wallbom, private

“I’m more surprised that some feel that the dangers have been exaggerated,” he said. “To me, that’s like burying your head in the sand.”

Wallbom was referring to what had happened at an annual security conference in Sälen in western Sweden a week ago.

Carl-Oscar Bohlin, the minister for civil defence, had told a stunned audience that “war could come to Sweden”, and that the tiny Nordic nation of 10.4 million needs to gear up. Fast.

Further fuel was added to the fire when Sweden’s commander-in-chief, Micael Bydén, then warned the same gathering that “Russia’s war against Ukraine is just a step, not an end game”. In a follow-up interview with national broadcaster TV4, he said that that all Swedes needed to prepare for war.

“We need to realise how serious the situation really is, and that everyone, individually, need to prepare themselves mentally,” he said.

Where are the bomb shelters?

Although this was not the first time the country’s officials had warned against the dangers of their increasingly aggressive neighbour Russia, it was the first time they explicitly said Sweden could potentially become its target – and a warzone.

Elin Bohman, a spokeswoman at the Swedish civil contingencies agency (MSB), which specialises in crisis management, said the comments had prompted a 3,500 percent increase in visits to the agency’s web-based map of bomb shelters, and a 900 percent increase in downloads of its information booklet “If crisis or war comes”.

“We haven’t experienced such demand since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine,” she said.

Sweden's information booklet 'If crisis or war comes' is distributed to all Swedish households and can also be downloaded.
The information booklet ‘If crisis or war comes’ was issued for the first time during World War II. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea it was revived again. © Thomas Henrikson, Handout MSB

The booklet was first issued during World War II and was distributed to all Swedish households in waves throughout the Cold War until 1961. In 2018, it was revised and re-issued again on the back of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“[The illegal annexation] was an awakening for the Swedish preparedness system,” Bohman explained. “All of a sudden the global situation changed, meaning we went from focusing only on peacetime crises to also include total defence planning in a bid to strengthen our total defence system. And a part of that was to ensure that we have a well-informed and prepared population.”

In 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the booklet was sent out again. It contains information on how to prepare for and act in a crisis situation, ranging from everything from power cuts and forest fires to cyber attacks and war.  

At the same time, MSB also encouraged Swedes to prepare “crisis kits” at home, containing necessities like a radio, food, water, a sleeping bag and a camping stove.

The Swedish 'If crisis or war comes' booklet contains information on how to best prepare for a crisis or a war situation.
The booklet contains information on how to prepare for a crisis, including war. © Thomas Henrikson, Handout MSB

Some companies have since capitalised on this new “crisis kit” market, offering ready-made food kits that can last up to 25 years.

Multiple arrests, cyber-attacks and GPS-jamming

Since 2022, and in particular after Sweden defied Russian threats and launched a bid to join the NATO military alliance, the situation in the country has grown more and more tense. Prior to its NATO application, Sweden had not been aligned militarily for 200 years. Neither Turkey nor Hungary have green-lit the application yet, but the Turkish decision is now only a parliament vote away.

In the past year alone, Swedish police have arrested several people suspected of spying or carrying out information-gathering for Russia. Swedish authorities have also seen a surge in cyber-attacks, and in December, a large area over the Baltic Sea was subject to a number of GPS-jamming incidents, causing several airplanes to lose their satellite-derived navigation signals. In the same period, Russia carried out a military exercise in the area with the aim of “undermining enemy navigation and radio communications”.

Some threats have intensified, [as has] the pure military threat, the threat of an armed attack, and the fact that we might be drawn into an escalation of the war in Ukraine. We’re seeing that very clearly when we study Russia,” Thomas Nilsson, the head of Sweden’s military intelligence and security service MUST told Swedish Radio in an interview on the sidelines of the security conference.

The TikTok backlash

But although last week’s comments may have been intended to place the Swedes on guard more than anything else, they also generated many negative reactions. Especially after making it onto the social media platform TikTok, whose main audience largely consists of children and teenagers.

“My children saw the TikTok and asked us about it,” said one Swedish mother of two who did not want to be named. “It’s hard for kids to focus and watch full clips, so what they basically see is just the headline: “War could come to Sweden”.

The child of one of her colleagues had seen the clip and come home in tears, she said. 

Swedish child protection group BRIS said its hotline had been saturated with calls from worried children after the blunt comments on war had spread online, prompting its secretary general Magnus Jagerskog to plead with media to take more care in how they relay news to children.

“For many children who are easily anxious or who are already worried about war, it became [even more] difficult when they were faced with social media posts and adults talking on the news about war,” he wrote in a statement. 

But the comments have also resulted in a political backlash. While the right-wing government has been accused of trying to win over supporters from the far right, the army has been accused of fear-mongering in a bid to up the annual defence spending budget.  

“Playing with the threat of war as part of the political opinion campaign is immoral but who is surprised?” Carl Tham, a former minister and a member of the Social Democrat opposition, wrote in an opinion piece in daily tabloid Aftonbladet.

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, whose right-wing party is in a government coalition with the far-right Sweden Democrat party, has defended the hardened war rhetoric.

“A government should of course speak clearly, anything else would be irresponsible,” he told Radio Sweden in an interview on Thursday, but noted that “there is nothing that suggests that war is at the door”.  

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Pakistan recalls ambassador to Iran after air strike that killed 2 children

Pakistan recalled its ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday, a day after Iran launched airstrikes on Pakistan that it claimed targeted bases for a militant Sunni separatist group. Islamabad angrily denounced the attack as a “blatant violation” of its airspace and said it killed two children.  

Tuesday’s strike on Pakistan’s restive southwestern Baluchistan province imperilled diplomatic relations between the two neighbours, but both sides appeared wary of provoking the other. Iran and nuclear-armed Pakistan have long regarded each other with suspicion over militant attacks. 

The attack also threatened to further ignite violence in a Middle East unsettled by Israel’s ongoing war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Iran launched strikes late Monday in Iraq and Syria over an Islamic State group-claimed suicide bombing that killed over 90 people earlier this month. 

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, announced that Islamabad is recalling the country’s ambassador to Iran over the strikes.

“Last night’s unprovoked and blatant breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by Iran is a violation of international law and the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations,” she said in a televised address

Baloch added that Pakistan asked the Iranian ambassador, who was visiting Tehran when the attack took place, not to return. Iran did not immediately acknowledge Pakistan’s decision.

China on Wednesday urged Pakistan and Iran to show “restraint” after the strike. 

“We call on both sides to exercise restraint, avoid actions that would lead to an escalation of tension and work together to maintain peace and stability,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular briefing.

“We consider both Iran and Pakistan as close neighbours and major Islamic countries,” she said.

Iranian state media reports, which were later withdrawn without explanation, said the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard targeted bases belonging to the militant group Jaish al-Adl, or the “Army of Justice.” The group, which seeks an independent Baluchistan and has spread across Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, acknowledged the assault in a statement shared online.

Six bomb-carrying drones and rockets struck homes that the militants claim housed children and wives of their fighters. Jaish al-Adl said the attack killed two children and wounded two women and a teenage girl. 

Videos shared by the Baluch activist group HalVash, purportedly from the site, showed a burning building and two charred, small corpses. 

A Pakistani intelligence report said the two children killed were a 6-year-old girl and an 11-month-old boy. Three women were injured, aged between 28 and 35. The report also said three or four drones were fired from the Iranian side, hitting a mosque and other buildings, including a house.

Jan Achakzai, a spokesperson for Baluchistan province, also condemned the attack.

“Pakistan has always sought cooperation from all the countries of region – including Iran – to combat terrorism,” “This is unacceptable and Pakistan has a right to respond to any aggression committed against its sovereignty.”

A senior Pakistani security official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to reporters, said Iran had shared no information prior to the strike. He said Pakistan reserved the right to respond at a time and place of the country’s choosing and such a strike would be measured and in line with public expectations. 

Read moreIslamic State group claims responsibility for deadly Iran bombings

“The dangerous precedent set by Iran is destabilising and has reciprocal implications,” the official said.

However, there were signs Pakistan was trying to contain any anger over the strike. The country’s typically outspoken and nationalistic media covered the attack Wednesday with unusual restraint. 

Iranian state media meanwhile continued not to address the strikes, instead discussing a joint naval drill held by Pakistan and the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday. Pakistani officials acknowledged the drill, but said it came earlier than Iran’s strikes.

Pakistani defence analyst Syed Muhammad Ali said the government would weigh any potential retaliation carefully.

The country’s air defence and missile systems are primarily deployed along the eastern border to respond to potential threats from India. But it might consider taking some measures to respond to such strikes from its western border with Afghanistan and Iran, Ali said.Jaish al-Adl was founded in 2012, and Iranian officials believe it largely operates in Pakistan.

The group has claimed bombings and kidnapped members of Iran’s border police in the past. In December, suspected Jaish al-Adl members killed 11 people and wounded eight others in a nighttime attack on a police station in southeastern Iran. Another recent attack killed another police officer in the area.

In 2019, Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting a bus that killed 27 members of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

Iran has suspected that Sunni-majority Pakistan is hosting insurgents, possibly at the behest of its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia. However, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a Chinese-mediated détente last March, easing tensions. Pakistan, meanwhile, has blamed Iran in the past over militant attacks targeting its security forces. 

Iran has fought in border areas against militants, but a missile-and-drone attack on Pakistan is unprecedented. 

It remains unclear why Iran launched the attack now, particularly as its foreign minister had met Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister the same day at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

After the Islamic State group bombings this month, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry alleged the two bombers involved in the attack had traveled from Afghanistan into Iran through its southeastern border at the Jalg crossing – meaning they had traveled through Baluchistan.

Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, as well as Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Baluchestan province, have faced a low-level insurgency by Baluch nationalists for more than two decades. They initially wanted a share of provincial resources, but later initiated an insurgency for independence.

Iran’s attack on Pakistan came less than a day after Iranian strikes on northern Iraq that killed several civilians. Iraq recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad on Tuesday in protest. Iran separately struck Syria as well.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.



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Taiwan’s new president: Five things you need to know about William Lai

TAIPEI — Forget Xi Jinping or Joe Biden for a second. Meet Taiwan’s next President William Lai, upon whom the fate of U.S.-China relations — and global security over the coming few years — is now thrust.

The 64-year-old, currently Taiwan’s vice president, has led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a historic third term in power, a first for any party since Taiwan became a democracy in 1996.

For now, the capital of Taipei feels as calm as ever. For Lai, though, the sense of victory will soon be overshadowed by a looming, extended period of uncertainty over Beijing’s next move. Taiwan’s Communist neighbor has laid bare its disapproval of Lai, whom Beijing considers the poster boy of the Taiwanese independence movement.

All eyes are now on how the Chinese leader — who less than two weeks ago warned Taiwan to face up to the “historical inevitability” of being absorbed into his Communist nation — will address the other inevitable conclusion: That the Taiwanese public have cast yet another “no” vote on Beijing.

1. Beijing doesn’t like him — at all

China has repeatedly lambasted Lai, suggesting that he will be the one bringing war to the island.

As recently as last Thursday, Beijing was trying to talk Taiwanese voters out of electing its nemesis-in-chief into the Baroque-style Presidential Office in Taipei.

“Cross-Strait relations have taken a turn for the worse in the past eight years, from peaceful development to tense confrontation,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Chen Binhua said, adding that Lai would now be trying to follow an “evil path” toward “military tension and war.”

While Beijing has never been a fan of the DPP, which views China as fundamentally against Taiwan’s interests , the personal disgust for Lai is also remarkable.

Part of that stems from a 2017 remark, in which Lai called himself a “worker for Taiwanese independence,” which has been repeatedly cited by Beijing as proof of his secessionist beliefs.

Without naming names, Chinese President Xi harshly criticized those promoting Taiwan independence in a speech in 2021.

“Secession aimed at Taiwan independence is the greatest obstacle to national reunification and a grave danger to national rejuvenation,” Xi said. “Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end, and will be disdained by the people and sentenced by the court of history.”

2. All eyes are on the next 4 months

Instability is expected to be on the rise over the next four months, until Lai is formally inaugurated on May 20.

No one knows how bad this could get, but Taiwanese officials and foreign diplomats say they don’t expect the situation to be as tense as the aftermath of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in 2022.

Already, days before the election, China sent several spy balloons to monitor Taiwan, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry. On the trade front, China was also stepping up the pressure, announcing a possible move to reintroduce tariffs on some Taiwanese products. Cases of disinformation and electoral manipulation have also been unveiled by Taiwanese authorities.

Those developments, combined, constitute what Taipei calls hybrid warfare — which now risks further escalation given Beijing’s displeasure with the new president.

3. Lai has to tame his independent instinct

In a way, he has already.

Speaking at the international press conference last week, Lai said he had no plan to declare independence if elected to the presidency.

DPP insiders say they expect Lai to stick to outgoing Tsai Ing-wen’s approach, without saying things that could be interpreted as unilaterally changing the status quo.

They also point to the fact that Lai chose as vice-presidential pick Bi-khim Hsiao, a close confidante with Tsai and former de facto ambassador to Washington. Hsiao has developed close links with the Biden administration, and will play a key role as a bridge between Lai and the U.S.

4. Taiwan will follow international approach

The U.S., Japan and Europe are expected to take precedence in Lai’s diplomatic outreach, while relations with China will continue to be negative.

Throughout election rallies across the island, the DPP candidate repeatedly highlighted the Tsai government’s efforts at diversifying away from the trade reliance on China, shifting the focus to the three like-minded allies.

Southeast Asia has been another top destination for these readjusted trade flows, DPP has said.

According to Taiwanese authorities, Taiwan’s exports to China and Hong Kong last year dropped 18.1 percent compared to 2022, the biggest decrease since they started recording this set of statistics in 1982.

In contrast, Taiwanese exports to the U.S. and Europe rose by 1.6 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, with the trade volumes reaching all-time highs.

However, critics point out that China continues to be Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, with many Taiwanese businesspeople living and working in the mainland.

5. Lai might face an uncooperative parliament

While vote counting continues, there’s a high chance Lai will be dealing with a divided parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

Before the election, the Kuomintang (KMT) party vowed to form a majority with Taiwan People’s Party in the Yuan, thereby rendering Lai’s administration effectively a minority government.

While that could pose further difficulties for Lai to roll out policies provocative to Beijing, a parliament in opposition also might be a problem when it comes to Taiwan’s much-needed defense spending.

“A divided parliament is very bad news for defense. KMT has proven that they can block defense spending, and the TPP will also try to provide what they call oversight, and make things much more difficult,” said Syaru Shirley Lin, who chairs the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation, a Taipei-based policy think tank.

“Although all three parties said they wanted to boost defense, days leading up to the election … I don’t think that really tells you what’s going to happen in the legislature,” Lin added. “There’s going to be a lot of policy trading.”



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