House speaker rejects Ukraine aid package as senators grind through votes

House Speaker Mike Johnson late Monday sharply criticised a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other countries, casting serious doubts about the future of the package just as Senate leaders were slowly muscling it ahead in hopes of sending a message that the US remains committed to its allies.

 

The Republican speaker said the package lacked border security provisions, calling it “silent on the most pressing issue facing our country.” It was the latest — and potentially most consequential — sign of opposition to the Ukraine aid from conservatives who have for months demanded that border security policy be included in the package, only to last week reject a bipartisan proposal intended to curb the number of illegal crossings at the US-Mexico border

“Now, in the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters,” Johnson said. “America deserves better than the Senate’s status quo.”

A determined group of Republican senators was also trying Monday with a marathon set of speeches to slow the Senate from passing the package. The mounting opposition was just the latest example of how the Republican Party’s stance on foreign affairs is being transformed under the influence of Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee.

Even if the package passes the Senate, as is expected, it faces an uncertain future in the House, where Republicans are more firmly aligned with Trump and deeply skeptical of continuing to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia.

As Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and 17 other GOP senators have provided the votes to ensure the foreign aid package stays on track to clearing the Senate, Johnson has shown no sign he will put the package up for a vote.

Support for sending military aid to Ukraine has waned among Republicans, but lawmakers have cast the aid as a direct investment in American interests to ensure global stability. The package would allot roughly $60 billion to Ukraine, and about a third of that would be spent replenishing the US military with the weapons and equipment that are sent to Kyiv.

“These are the enormously high stakes of the supplemental package: our security, our values, our democracy,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as he opened the chamber. “It is a down payment for the survival of Western democracy and the survival of American values.”

Schumer worked closely with McConnell for months searching for a way to win favor in the House for tens of billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine. But after the carefully negotiated Senate compromise that included border policy collapsed last week, Republicans have been deeply divided on the legislation.

Sen. JD Vance, an Ohio Republican, argued that the US should step back from the conflict and help broker an end to the conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He questioned the wisdom of continuing to fuel Ukraine’s defense when Putin appears committed to continuing the conflict for years.

“I think it deals with the reality that we’re living in, which is they’re a more powerful country, and it’s their region of the world,” he said.

Vance, along with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other opponents, spent several hours on the floor railing against the aid and complaining about Senate process. They dug in to delay a final vote.

“Wish us stamina. We fight for you. We stand with America,” Paul posted on social media as he and other senators prepared to occupy the floor as long as they could.

Paul defended his delays, saying “the American people need to know there was opposition to this.”

But bowing to Russia is a prospect some Republicans warned would be a dangerous move that puts Americans at risk. In an unusually raw back-and-forth, GOP senators who support the aid challenged some of the opponents directly on the floor.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis angrily rebutted some of their arguments, noting that the money would only help Ukraine for less than a year and that much of it would go to replenishing US military stocks.

“Why am I so focused on this vote?” Tillis said. “Because I don’t want to be on the pages of history that we will regret if we walk away. You will see the alliance that is supporting Ukraine crumble. You will ultimately see China become emboldened. And I am not going to be on that page of history.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., became emotional as he talked about the drudgery of the Senate and spending time away from his family to get little done. “But every so often there are issues that come before us that seem to be the ones that explain why we are here,” he said, his voice cracking.

Moran conceded that the cost of the package was heavy for him, but pointed out that if Putin were to attack a NATO member in Europe, the US would be bound by treaty to become directly involved in the conflict.

Trump, speaking at a rally Saturday, said that he had once told a NATO ally he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to members that are “delinquent” in their financial and military commitments to the alliance. The former president has led his party away from the foreign policy doctrines of aggressive American involvement overseas and toward an “America First” isolationism.

Evoking the slogan, Moran said, “I believe in America first, but unfortunately America first means we have to engage in the world.”

Senate supporters of the package have been heartened by the fact that many House Republicans still adamantly want to fund Ukraine’s defense.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, traveled to Kyiv last week with a bipartisan group that included Reps. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, as well as French Hill, R-Ark., Jason Crow, D-Colo. and Zach Nunn, R-Iowa.

Spanberger said the trip underscored to her how Ukraine is still in a fight for its very existence. As the group traveled through Kyiv in armored vehicles, they witnessed signs of an active war, from sandbagged shelters to burned-out cars and memorials to those killed. During a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the US lawmakers tried to offer assurances the American people still stood with his country.

“He was clear that our continued support is critical to their ability to win the war,” Spanberger said. “It’s critical to their own freedom. And importantly, it’s critical to US national security interests.”

The bipartisan group discussed how rarely used procedures could be used to advance the legislation through the House, even without the speaker’s support. But Spanberger called it a “tragedy” that the legislation could still stall despite a majority of lawmakers standing ready to support it.

“The fact that the only thing standing in the way is one person who does or doesn’t choose to bring it to the floor,” she said. “The procedure standing in the way of defeating Russia — that’s the part that for me is just untenable.”

(AP)

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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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Venezuela’s Zolfaghar boats are just the latest military equipment provided by Iran

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro launched military exercises near the border with Guyana on December 28, following weeks of crisis between the neighbouring countries over the Essequibo region. Amid the growing tensions, it emerged that Venezuela is in possession of Iran-made combat boats. The news isn’t surprising, given that Iran has provided the Venezuelan army with boats, drones, rockets and missiles for years.

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For decades, Venezuela has tried to claim Essequibo, a 160,000 km2 territory that is part of neighbouring Guyana. Rich in petrol and natural resources, this region represents two thirds of the overall surface area of Guyana. About a fifth of Guyana’s population lives in this contested region.

Tensions over Essequibo ratcheted up in September after Guyana made a call for bids from oil companies to exploit the region.  

The situation got worse after Venezuela held a controversial referendum on December 3, asking the population about its claim on Essequibo. Maduro then ordered the state oil company to issue licenses authorising Venezuela to exploit the resources of the contested region. 

Though the leaders of Venezuela and Guyana declared in mid-December that they had agreed not to use force against one another, on December 28 Maduro launched military exercises that involved bringing around 5,600 troops to the border region with Guyana. He called it a “response to provocation” by the United Kingdom, after the British sent the warship HMS Trent to Guyana. Georgetown said that the patrol vessel was going to participate in planned routine exercises.

Rapid Iranian combat vessels

It’s in this context that a video appeared on social media in late December showing Iranian combat vessels known as “Zolfaghar boats” filmed at the Puerto Cabello naval base in Venezuela.


This video was filmed in late December in the Puerto Cabello naval base in Venezuela.

The Zolfaghar boats are considered to be fast patrol crafts and can reach up to 52 knots per hour (or 96 km/h). They aren’t the fastest combat ships, but they are comparable to those used by Western countries. The Venezuelan Navy already showed off last summer that they were in possession of Zolfaghar boats.

On the left is the photo of Zolfaghar boats that the Venezuelan Navy publicised during the summer of 2023. On the right is a photo of Zolfaghar boats in the Persian Gulf that was published by Tasnim News, a media outlet with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, back in 2018. © France 24 Observers

There isn’t anything surprising about seeing Iranian boats in Venezuela. Iran and Venezuela have long enjoyed a good relationship, especially after former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. The two countries became even closer in 2005 when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as both leaders were anti-American and populist.

Slowly but surely, the two countries have developed their military cooperation. Iran first provided Venezuela with weapons in 2008. Aside from the Zolfaghar boats, Iran has also provided Venezuela with drones, rockets and missiles. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has compiled a list of some of the Iranian weapons that Venezuela has in its arsenal after studying images shared by the army and media.

Iranian drones, rockets and missiles in Venezuela

1 – Drones

Exporting drones has become one of Tehran’s specialties. A number of armed groups in places like Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza use Iranian drones, as do countries like Russia, Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tajikistan and Venezuela.

Read moreInside the arsenal: Iranian-sourced weapons used in Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s Israel assault

ANSU-200

Though Venezuela claims that the ANSU-200 is “homemade”, it is actually a copy of the Iranian Shahed 161 drone from the Simorgh drone family. These drones are themselves copies of the American RQ-170 drone. ANSU-200 is a reconnaissance drone with what are known as flying wings.

The image on the left is a screengrab showing a ANSU-200 drone on display in a military parade in Venezuela back in 2022 (screengrab of a video). The image on the right shows an Iranian Shahed 161 drone on display at a military expo in Iran in February 2023.
The image on the left is a screengrab showing a ANSU-200 drone on display in a military parade in Venezuela back in 2022 (screengrab of a video). The image on the right shows an Iranian Shahed 161 drone on display at a military expo in Iran in February 2023. © X / Venezuelan Ministry of Defence, Mizan.

ANSU-100

The ANSU-100 is an Iranian attack drone assembled in Venezuela using Iranian pieces. While Venezuela calls the drone the ANSU-100, its real name, in Iran, is Mohajer-2. Mohajer drones have been developed and made in Iran since the late 1980s.

The image on the left features an ANSU-100 drone in a military parade in Venezuela in 2022. The image on the right shows a ANSU-100 drone in a military expo in Venezuela in 2021.
The image on the left features an ANSU-100 drone in a military parade in Venezuela in 2022. The image on the right shows a ANSU-100 drone in a military expo in Venezuela in 2021. © France 24 Observers

This is a photo of the Mohajer-2 drone taken during an exercise in Iran in 2016.
This is a photo of the Mohajer-2 drone taken during an exercise in Iran in 2016. © Tasnim

ANSU

The ANSU is a small mobile reconnaissance drone called a “Yazdan”. Once again, it is an Iranian-made drone.

The image on the left shows a military expo in Venezuela in July 2023. The image on the right shows a
The image on the left shows a military expo in Venezuela in July 2023. The image on the right shows a “Yazdan” drone on display in a military parade in Iran in 2022. © ISNA (photo on the right)

ANSU-500

This is an Iranian VTOL (vertical take off and landing) attack drone. It can carry four small bombs. Even though this model is called the ANSU-500 by Venezuela, its name in Iran is the “Shahin VTOL”.

The image on the right shows the “Shahin” drone on display by the Iranian military industry during a military expo in Belarus in May 2023. The image on the right shows the ANSU-500 drone in a military expo in Venezuela in 2023.
The image on the right shows the “Shahin” drone on display by the Iranian military industry during a military expo in Belarus in May 2023. The image on the right shows the ANSU-500 drone in a military expo in Venezuela in 2023. © Oswaldo Monterola (photo at right).

Mohajer-6

The Mohajer-6 is a reconnaissance and attack drone that Iran has given to Venezuela. Even though it isn’t Iran’s most powerful attack drone, it can carry bombs or missiles.

On the left is an image of the Iranian Mohajer-6 drone in Venezuela in 2020. The image on the right shows the Iranian Mohajer-6 drone in a photo published in 2018 by Iranian news agencies.
On the left is an image of the Iranian Mohajer-6 drone in Venezuela in 2020. The image on the right shows the Iranian Mohajer-6 drone in a photo published in 2018 by Iranian news agencies. © France 24 Observers

2 – Missiles and rockets

Fajr-1 rockets and rocket-launchers

This is an old rocket launcher developed by Iran in the 1980s. Venezuela has equipped a number of its military vehicles and boats with this type of rocket launcher. The Fajr-1 is a 107 mm rocket. It can shoot more than eight kilometres. It’s an imitation of the “Type-63” Chinese rockets which were built in China in the 1960s. 

These are Fajr-1 rocket launchers that were on display during military parades and military exercises in Venezuela in 2022.
These are Fajr-1 rocket launchers that were on display during military parades and military exercises in Venezuela in 2022. © Prensa FANB

موشک‌های Fajr-1 در قایق‌های IRGC، عکس گرفته شده در خلیج فارس در سال ۲۰۱۲. AFPموشک Fajr-1 در یک نمایشگاه نظامی در سال ۲۰۰۹ در ایران
The image on the left shows a Fajr-1 rocket launcher on display during a military expo in Iran in 2009. The image on the right shows Fajr-1 rocket launchers on boats belonging to Guardians of the Revolution in the Persian Gulf in 2012. © AFP (photo on the right).

Ghaem-1

Iran developed the Ghaem-1, which is a “Smart Miniature Bomb”. Weighing only 12kg, it can be carried by attack drones. It can hit targets between 12 to 40km away.

The image on the left shows the Ghaem-1 bomb on display during a Venezuelan military expo in 2021. The image on the right shows a Ghaem-1 bomb on display at a military expo in Iran in 2022.
The image on the left shows the Ghaem-1 bomb on display during a Venezuelan military expo in 2021. The image on the right shows a Ghaem-1 bomb on display at a military expo in Iran in 2022. © Iranian state media outlets (image on the right)

Nasr cruise missile

The Nasr is an Iranian short-range, anti-ship cruise missile, designed to be used from combat vessels. It can destroy small combat ships up to 35km away. Several images show that a number of Venezuelan combat ships are equipped with this system.


This shows a Nasr missile being fired in Venezuela during military exercises in July 2023.

This Iranian military ship fired this Nasr missile during an exercise in 2020.
This Iranian military ship fired this Nasr missile during an exercise in 2020. © ISNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Inside the arsenal: Iranian-sourced weapons used in Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s Israel assault

Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement launched an incursion into Israel on October 7, attacking by air and ground. While the range of weapons they’ve employed has garnered international attention, none of these armaments comes as a revelation. Both Hamas’s armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, and Islamic Jihad’s Al Quds Brigades have previously showcased these weapons in propaganda materials and military parades as well as using them against Israeli targets. The majority of these weapons have origins in Iran, and those produced within Gaza are also believed to have been developed by the Islamic Republic, with a small fraction originating from North Korea and Syria.

A surprise ground assault by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza on Israel has so far killed more than 900 Israelis and left hundreds more injured or missing. Concerts, cities, communities, infrastructure and military garrisons have come under an unprecedented attack.

It is no secret that most of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad bunkers are filled with weapons of Iranian origin. Iranian officials, including political and military figures, have repeatedly confirmed that they provide economic and logistical support to Hamas. The Palestinian groups have also confirmed this, and publicly praised the mullahs in Tehran for their support.

FRANCE 24 journalist and terrorism expert Wassim Nasr told us more:

In all these videos, I don’t see any new weapons or any new technology that they are using. We have already seen all these weapons in previous attacks on Israeli targets or in the videos they publish of their training.

Some of these weapons were smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels. Gaza has been under siege for years and the weapons are smuggled along with many other things, from food to household appliances.

The other part of these Iranian-inspired weapons is manufactured inside Gaza with the support of Iran, which provides its blueprints and technical assistance from outside.

In May 2021, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, leader of Islamic Jihad, said in an interview: “It was Qasem Soleimani (Editor’s note: the former commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) who brought the idea of producing missiles inside Gaza by teaching our engineering ranks. All of Islamic Jihad and Hamas engineers are trained by Iran.”

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, also confirmed in a public speech in May 2019 that the group’s missiles come from Iran.

“Let me be clear. If it wasn’t for Iran, our resistance would not exist, we would not have these capabilities,” he said. “Our people (Arab governments) have abandoned us in the hard times, though Iran helped us with weapons, logistics, trainings, and technical support.”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team verified a number of videos posted by citizens or the official accounts of military groups in Gaza on social networks to verify the origin of the weapons used against Israel.

Mortars, rockets and mines

We can see Iranian-made mortars being fired in this video released by Hamas. In this video, it is claimed that the mortar – a 120-millimetre “M48” mortar from Iran – was fired at Israel from Gaza on October 7, 2023.

The Al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, have already featured these Iranian-made mortars in their propaganda videos. In a video released by Hamas in May 2020, we see exactly the same type of mortar, which was manufactured in Iran in 2007.

On the right, a Hamas propaganda video published October 7 2023. On the left, a propaganda video from May 2020. © Observers

These pictures released by Israel reportedly show the aftermath of a raid on a group of Hamas commandos who entered Israel on 7 October and were killed.

The pictures show weapons that were allegedly found in the trucks of the Hamas commandos. In these pictures, we see at least two types of Iranian-made weapons.

This image shows two YM-II, Iranian anti-tank mines and Iranian PG -7VR rockets. This was originally a Soviet anti-tank missile.
This image shows two YM-II, Iranian anti-tank mines and Iranian PG -7VR rockets. This was originally a Soviet anti-tank missile. © .

Older Hamas videos show that the group has been equipped with this kind of rocket for about a decade.

Photo published by the IRGC-linked Iranian news site Mashregh in August 2014 showing Hamas fighters.
Photo published by the IRGC-linked Iranian news site Mashregh in August 2014 showing Hamas fighters. © Mashregh

The Al Quds Brigade, the military arm of Islamic Jihad, also participated in last Saturday’s attacks. In a video they posted on their social media purporting to show an attack on an Israeli target on October 7, we see them using another Iranian anti-tank rocket.

It is an Iranian-made Ra’d-T, the Iranian version of the 9M14 Malyutka, an anti-tank guided missile developed in the Soviet Union.

Ra’d-T, the Iranian version of the 9M14 Malyutka, an anti-tank guided missile developed in the Soviet Union. video published by Hamas on October 7.
Ra’d-T, the Iranian version of the 9M14 Malyutka, an anti-tank guided missile developed in the Soviet Union. video published by Hamas on October 7. © Observers

Another Iranian-made rocket found in these attacks is the “Misagh” MANPADS. We can see the wreckage of a MANPADS in a video published by Israel after an ambush on Hamas commandos.

This is an anti-aircraft missile called Misagh in Iran. Misagh itself is a copy of a Chinese missile called QW-1 Vanguard, which itself is a copy of the Soviet MANPADS Igla.
This is an anti-aircraft missile called Misagh in Iran. Misagh itself is a copy of a Chinese missile called QW-1 Vanguard, which itself is a copy of the Soviet MANPADS Igla. © .

In this wave of attacks by Hamas insurgents, thousands of rockets were fired at several cities, including the capital Tel Aviv. Hamas and other military groups in Gaza have been using this strategy against the Israelis for years.

Military groups in Gaza have received several types of Iranian short-range rockets over the decades, including Fajr-3, Fajr-5 and Zelzal.

In this video released in May 2021, Hamas presents its “Ayyash 250” rocket, which is actually an Iranian Zelzal-generation rocket.
In this video released in May 2021, Hamas presents its “Ayyash 250” rocket, which is actually an Iranian Zelzal-generation rocket. © .

Drones

According to some videos Hamas and Islamic Jihad shared during the recent attacks on Israel, the armed groups are using surveillance or suicide drones in their assaults.

While Hamas has named this drone “Shahab”, it’s a copy of “Ababil-2”, an Iranian-made drone used by many Iranian proxies in the Middle East, albeit under a different name. The Houthis in Yemen, for example, call it Qasef-2K.

The Ababil-2 is an old model of Iranian loitering munitions from 15 years ago. Iran now has more advanced models such as the Shahed 131 and 136, which have received international attention due to Russia’s use of them in the war in Ukraine.

While Hamas has named this drone “Shahab”, it’s a copy of “Ababil-2”, an Iranian-made drone
While Hamas has named this drone “Shahab”, it’s a copy of “Ababil-2”, an Iranian-made drone © .

Once again, the use of this drone in the fight against Israeli targets is not new. The Al Qassam forces have already shown that they have this drone, and they have even used it to attack targets on Israeli territory.

For example, this video from May 2021: Hamas shows in an official video that it has acquired this drone and is capable of using it.
For example, this video from May 2021: Hamas shows in an official video that it has acquired this drone and is capable of using it. © Observers

In May 2021, Hamas attacked a chemical factory near Nir Oz in Israel using this drone.

The Al Quds Brigade also released a video showing the use of a drone against Israeli targets. The Palestinian group calls it “Kamikaz Sayyad”. It is a small Iranian loitering munition whose original name in Iran is simply Sayyad or “ShahedX”; the Houthis, the other users of these suicide drones, call it “Samad-1”.

Islamic Jihad has long been known to have this kind of Iranian drone at its disposal. The Al Quds Brigade showcased it in a military parade on October 4.

The Islamic Jihad has long been known to have this kind of Iranian drone at its disposal. For example, in a military parade on October 4, the Al Quds Brigade presented this drone.
The Islamic Jihad has long been known to have this kind of Iranian drone at its disposal. For example, in a military parade on October 4, the Al Quds Brigade presented this drone. © Observers

Rifles and machine guns

Various Palestinian factions in Gaza have been known to use Iranian rifles. These firearms may either originate from other nations and be supplied by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or they could be directly sourced as Iranian-made weapons.

The Iranian-made anti-materiel rifle, Sayyad, is one of them.

Hamas insurgents were seen with Iranian anti-materiel Sayyad rifles in military parades in January 2019 and 2020.

Hamas insurgents were seen with Iranian anti-materiel Sayyad rifles in military parades in January 2019 and 2020.
Hamas insurgents were seen with Iranian anti-materiel Sayyad rifles in military parades in January 2019 and 2020. © Observers

In an Al Jazeera report broadcast in May 2022, we see Hamas commandos using Sayyad anti-materiel rifles against the surveillance tools Israel deployed at the border between Gaza and Israel.
In an Al Jazeera report broadcast in May 2022, we see Hamas commandos using Sayyad anti-materiel rifles against the surveillance tools Israel deployed at the border between Gaza and Israel. © Al-Jazeera

Some Iranian copies of Chinese machine guns have also been found in the south of Israel following the October 7 attacks.

Powered paragliders

One of the methods used by Palestinian military groups to invade Israeli territory was the use of powered paragliders as aircraft for military purposes.

Although it seems to be an original idea, the “Saberin”, the elite troops of the Iranian IRGC, have previously used them as short-range light aircraft. 

It seems to be an original idea, but the “Saberin”, the elite troops of the Iranian IRGC, have previously used them as short-range light aircraft. left: Saberin photo, Feb 2021, Right: recent attack on Israel by Hamas
It seems to be an original idea, but the “Saberin”, the elite troops of the Iranian IRGC, have previously used them as short-range light aircraft. left: Saberin photo, Feb 2021, Right: recent attack on Israel by Hamas © .

‘We support Palestinians […] but this was the work of the Palestinians themselves’

Iranian political and military officials have consistently voiced their backing for militant groups in Gaza. Notably, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, has affirmed this support on multiple occasions, including during meetings with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“The Palestinians must feel that they have improved, and this has happened by providing them with accurate missiles instead of throwing stones [at Israelis],” Khamenei said in a meeting with Hamas leaders in Tehran on July 22, 2019.

But on October 10, Ayatollah Khamenei, while endorsing and commending the recent attacks, disclaimed any involvement of the Iranian regime in orchestrating them.

“In the last couple of days, some officials of the [Israeli] regime and their supporters claim that Iran is behind these attacks,” he said. “They are mistaken. We support Palestinians […] but this was the work of the Palestinians themselves.”

‘The only thing that is new is the coordination’

Wassim Nasr says that the weapons and tactics seen in the October 7 attacks are not new.

The only thing that is new is the coordination and planning. They organised attacks on more than 30 observation posts on the wall between the Gaza Strip and Israeli territory and on 11 military posts at the same time, with the attacks being coordinated by different independent military groups.

But what they have done against these military observation posts is nothing extraordinary: they used civilian drones dropping small bombs, which we have seen for years in Syria, first used by the Islamic State group, or in Ukraine and in many other conflicts as well.

It seems that Hamas has been organising this attack since at least May last year. In May 2023, Islamic Jihad organised an attack on Israel and surprisingly Hamas did not take part in it, showing that it did not want to escalate the situation until it was ready for the “big surprise”.

The only thing we know for sure is that Iran has been supporting Hamas and Islamic Jihad for decades, with money, weapons, training, and technical support. It’s their common method for supporting their proxies as they did exactly the same thing with the Houthis in Yemen, as well as with multiple militias in Iraq or with Hezbollah in Lebanon since 1982. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have the exception of being Sunni and not Shia factions. Are these attacks ordered by Iran? I don’t know, I think no one knows.

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Nagorno-Karabakh evacuations begin as Armenia warns of ‘ethnic cleansing’

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KORNIDZOR, Armenia — The first convoys of civilians have left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia following an Azerbaijani military offensive amid growing warnings that a mass exodus could be on the cards.

On Sunday, humanitarian organizations and the Armenian government said that dozens of people had been evacuated after Azerbaijan agreed to open the Lachin Corridor that links the breakaway territory to the country. According to the Ministry of Health, the Red Cross escorted 23 ambulances carrying “seriously and very seriously wounded citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Meanwhile, other civilians say they had begged the Russian peacekeepers to take them across, after Karabakh Armenian leaders on Tuesday accepted a surrender agreement following just 24 hours of fierce fighting and shelling.

At a checkpoint near the village of Kornidzor, on the border with Azerbaijan, a steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions.

At the border, POLITICO spoke to Artur, a Karabakh Armenian who had been stranded by the 9-month-long effective blockade of the region. Awaiting news of his relatives after Azerbaijani forces launched their offensive, he received a call from his sister to say she had been evacuated with the Russian peacekeepers.

After an hour of waiting anxiously, he was reunited with 27-year-old Rima. Sitting in the back of an SUV, she cried as her two children — aged three and one — unwrapped bars of chocolate, a luxury they have done without amid severe shortages of food and other essentials. “We’ve arrived,” she said.

Marut Vanyan, a local blogger, said many others were planning to follow suit. “People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going,” Vanyan said, speaking after being able to charge his telephone at a Red Cross station in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point. “Where were you when we were in Karabakh? You want to film? Here are my legs,” he said angrily, raising the ends of his trousers to reveal bandaged, bruised shins.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Meanwhile, Armenia’s prime minister warned that, despite assurances from Russia, “the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing.”

“If the needs of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are not met [so that they are able to stay] in their homes, and effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing not put in place, then the likelihood is increasing that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see expulsion from their homeland as the only way out,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan predicted.

At the same time, Pashinyan said Armenia would welcome its “brothers” from the exclave — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but held by Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prime minister’s stark warning comes just two days after Pashinyan said he “assumed” Russia had taken responsibility for the fate of the population, after Karabakh Armenian leaders accepted a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement following almost 24 hours of fierce fighting with Azerbaijani forces. The embattled prime minister, however, said he believed there was a genuine hope that locals would be able to continue living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Shortly after Pashinyan’s address, the official information center for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement saying “the families of those left homeless as a result of recent military action and who expressed a desire to leave the republic will be transferred to Armenia accompanied by Russian peacekeepers.” Officials will provide information “about the relocation of other population groups in the near future,” according to the statement.

According to Azerbaijan’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, the government will “also respect the individual choices of residents.”

“It once again shows that allegations as if Azerbaijan blocked the roads for passage are not true,” Hajiyev told POLITICO. “They are enabled to use their private vehicles.”

Dozens of trucks carrying 150 tons of humanitarian aid, organized by the The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Russian Red Cross, gained rare access to the region via a road controlled by Azerbaijani troops on Saturday. Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, said the guarantee for humanitarian aid access “once again shows the good intentions and seriousness of the Azerbaijan government to meet the needs and requirements of Armenian residents and also to ensure a safe and decent reintegration process.”

“People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going” | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Azerbaijan has said the Karabakh Armenians can continue to live in the region if they lay down their weapons and accept being governed as part of the country.

However, in an interview with Reuters on Sunday, David Babayan, an adviser to the Karabakh Armenian leadership, said that “our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% [would] prefer to leave our historic lands.”

Accusing the international community of abandoning the estimated 100,000 residents of the besieged territory, Babayan declared that “the fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world. Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins,” he said.

Pashinyan has accused citizens with close ties to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership of fomenting unrest in the country, with protesters clashing with police in the capital of Yerevan as criticism of his handling of the crisis grows.



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North Korea’s Kim arrives in Russia for Putin meeting

North Korea may have tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could give a huge boost to the Russian army in Ukraine, analysts say.

Joined by his top military officials handling his nuclear-capable weapons and munitions factories, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Russia on Tuesday before an expected meeting with President Vladimir Putin that has sparked concerns about a potential arms deal for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

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North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Kim boarded his personal train Sunday afternoon accompanied by unspecified members of the country’s ruling party, government and military.

South Korea’s military assessed the train crossed into Russia sometime early Tuesday, Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said in a briefing without elaborating on how the military obtained the information.

Kim’s delegation likely includes his foreign minister, Choe Sun Hui, and his top two military officials – Korean People’s Army Marshals Ri Pyong Chol and Pak Jong Chon.

Other officials identified in North Korean state media photos may hint at what Kim might seek from Putin and what he would be willing to give.

The officials include Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, and Navy Adm. Kim Myong Sik, who are linked with North Korean efforts to acquire spy satellites and nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines. Experts say North Korea would struggle to acquire such capabilities without external help, although it’s not clear if Russia would share such sensitive technologies.

Kim Jong Un is also apparently bringing Jo Chun Ryong, a ruling party official in charge of munitions policies who had accompanied the leader on his recent tours to factories producing artillery shells and missiles, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which analyzed the North Korean photos.

North Korea may have tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could give a huge boost to the Russian army in Ukraine, analysts say.

Arms supplies to refill Russian reserves

A possible venue where Kim and Putin could meet is the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, where Putin arrived Monday to attend an international forum that runs through Wednesday, according to Russia’s TASS news agency. Putin’s first meeting with Kim was held in 2019 in the city that’s about 680 kilometres north of Pyongyang. Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying Putin and Kim will meet after the Vladivostok forum, but the reports didn’t specify when or where.

Kim Jong Un is making his first foreign trip since the COVID-19 pandemic during which North Korea tightly enforced border controls for more than three years.

Associated Press journalists near the North Korea-Russia frontier saw a green train with yellow trim similar to one Kim used during previous foreign trips at a station on the North Korean side of a border river on Monday.

US officials released intelligence last week that North Korea and Russia were arranging a meeting between their leaders.

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According to US officials, Putin could focus on securing more supplies of North Korean artillery and other ammunition to refill declining reserves as he seeks to defuse a Ukrainian counteroffensive and show that he’s capable of grinding out a long war of attrition. That could potentially put more pressure on the US and its partners to pursue negotiations as concerns over a protracted conflict grow despite their huge shipments of advanced weaponry to Ukraine in the past 17 months.

“Arms discussions between Russia and the DPRK are expected to continue during Kim Jong Un’s trip to Russia,” said White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “We urge the DPRK to abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia.”

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington will monitor the meeting closely, reminding both countries that “any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would be a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions,” and that the US “will not hesitate to impose new sanctions.”

In exchange, Kim could seek badly needed energy and food aid and advanced weapons technologies, including those related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines and military reconnaissance satellites, analysts say.

There are concerns that potential Russian technology transfers would increase the threat posed by Kim’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles that are designed to target the US, South Korea, and Japan.

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Pyongyang-Moscow rapprochement

After decades of a complicated, hot-and-cold relationship, Russia and North Korea have been drawing closer since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The bond has been driven by Putin’s need for war help and Kim’s efforts to boost the visibility of his partnerships with traditional allies Moscow and Beijing as he tries to break out of diplomatic isolation and have North Korea be part of a united front against Washington.

The United States has been accusing North Korea since last year of providing Russia with arms, including artillery shells sold to the Russian mercenary group Wagner. Both Russian and North Korean officials denied such claims.

But speculation about the countries’ military cooperation grew after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a rare visit to North Korea in July when Kim invited him to an arms exhibition and a massive military parade in the capital where he showcased ICBMs designed to target the US mainland.

Following that visit, Kim toured North Korea’s weapons factories, including a facility producing artillery systems where he urged workers to speed up the development and large-scale production of new kinds of ammunition. Experts say Kim’s visits to the factories likely had a dual goal of encouraging the modernization of North Korean weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies that could be exported to Russia.

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Does this video prove that a Mexican cartel has a working AT4 rocket launcher? Here’s what we know

A video widely shared on social media in late May shows a man, wearing a bulletproof vest marked with the logo of a Mexican cartel, carrying a weapon that looks like an AT4 anti-tank rocket launcher. The Russian ambassador to Mexico joined in the debate about the video on Twitter, hypothesising that the weapon was likely sent to Ukraine by the West and that the cartel had bought it on the black market. We investigated this video.

On May 29, a Twitter account called “Sin Censura Tamaulipas” (“Uncensored Tamaulipas”) published a video showing two heavily armed men wearing bullet proof vests marked with cartel logos walking alongside a road carrying weapons. The caption of the tweet reads: “These are special forces 19 of #Matamoros #Tamaulipas. You can see a hitman carrying a AT-4 bazooka of gringa origin.” Gringa describes something of foreign origin, usually American.

This tweet has already garnered 118,000 views. And there are a number of other tweets featuring the video that have also garnered hundreds of thousands of views, like this one or this one.

1. When and where was this video filmed? Who are the men in it?

This video was probably filmed in Tamaulipas state, Mexico. The Twitter account “Sin Censura Tamaulipas”, where it was first published, specialises in sharing information about this area.

Moreover, the logo on the men’s bullet-proof vests looks a lot like the one belonging to the Scorpions, a faction of the Gulf Cartelone of the most powerful criminal organisations in Mexico. This cartel is primarily based in Tamaulipas state, especially in the towns of Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. One of its primary activities is drug trafficking. In early March, the Scorpions kidnapped four Americans, ultimately killing two of them in Matamoros.

The image at the left shows a screengrab of a video published on May 29. At right, you can see the logo of the Scorpions, a faction of the Gulf Cartel. The image features ta scorpion and the letters “C.D.G” (the abbreviation in Spanish for Gulf Cartel), “XIX” (a reference to “El 19”, the nickname of the leader of the cartel) and the words “respect”, “loyalty”, “discipline”, “courage”, “strength and immortality” and “transformation”. Twitter / Sin Censura Tamaulipas

Our team spoke to a resident of Matamoros, who spoke to us anonymously:

The Gulf Cartel is present in our town, especially the Scorpion faction. The leader of the faction is known as “La Kena” or “El 19”. This armed group controls a lot of the business in the city. Many of its members are based in Matamoros and many of them are from here. Even earlier today, I came across several armed men – the kind that you see in the video – in town, just five minutes from my home. It’s normal to see them in the street. When you run into them, you have to just act as if they weren’t there and get as far away from them as possible.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a lot of clashes between the Scorpions and other factions who are fighting for control of territory in the towns of Valle Hermoso and San Fernando [Editor’s note: Valle Hermoso is located around 47 km to the south of Matamoros, while San Fernando is about 140 km away]. It’s possible that the video was filmed there.

Our team wasn’t able to identify the exact location where the video was filmed in Tamaulipas state, nor the exact date when it was filmed. However, when we carried out a reverse image search, we didn’t find any instances of the video online before May 2023. 

Our team contacted the city government in Matamoros as well as the Secretary for Public Security in Tamaulipas, but we didn’t get a response from either.

2. What are the weapons seen in the video?

The video includes footage of three different weapons. Our team spoke to several weapons experts, who said that the man on the left is carrying what seems to be an AR-15M4 or SCAR rifle. All of these are military-grade weapons. The man on the right is carrying a Kalashnikov as well as what looks like an AT4, an 84mm anti-tank rocket launcher, which is able to penetrate armoured vehicles.

You can see three different weapons in the video published on May 29.
You can see three different weapons in the video published on May 29. Twitter / Sin Censura Tamaulipas

What can we tell about the AT4 visible in this video?

Our team spoke to specialists who said that there are a few possibilities for the AT4 in the video. The first is that it is a real AT4, capable of firing an explosive projectile. The second is that it is a training model of the weapon, which wouldn’t actually be able to shoot. And finally, it could be an “airsoft”, a replica used for recreational purposes. 

This website is selling an airsoft replica of the AT4 for 850 dollars.
This website is selling an airsoft replica of the AT4 for 850 dollars. © Evike.com

Even if the weapon is a real AT4, it is impossible to know if it has been used or not.  

“The AT4 is a disposable weapon,” said Andrei Serbin Pont, the director of a research centre in Argentina called CRIES. “Once the ammunition has been fired, the tube is useless. And, actually, it very common for discarded tubes to end up in the hands of civilians or armed groups in, for example, Venezuela [Editor’s note: as in this example.] I have a feeling that the AT4 shown in the video has already been used or that it is a replica. It’s actually pretty common for paramilitary groups to show off discarded tubes on social media to make themselves look powerful.”

However, there is a clue that provides us with a bit more information about the AT4: the black and yellow band on it.

We zoomed in on the black and yellow band on the weapon at two different points in the video published on May 29.
We zoomed in on the black and yellow band on the weapon at two different points in the video published on May 29. Twitter / Sin Censura Tamaulipas

A US army manual published in 2010 explains that when there is a black and yellow band on an AT4, it can fire real ammunition. A gold band indicates that the weapon would be used for training purposes (FHT: Field Handling Trainer) and that it doesn’t fire projectiles. Another online manual, this one on Globalsecurity.org, says that training models have gold or yellow bands on them.

Screengrab of the online manual
Screengrab of the online manual “Shoulder-Launched Munitions” published in 2010. US Army

Theoretically, an AT4 with a black and yellow band could fire a real projectile – unless it is airsoft. Ryan MacBeth, a US army veteran, pointed out that the yellow stripe visible in the video is particularly large, if you compare it with other images of AT4s with black and yellow bands (like this or like this). This could indicate that the band was added later.

The photo at the left, taken in 2019, shows an American soldier with an AT4. The image at the right is a screengrab taken from the video posted on May 29.
The photo at the left, taken in 2019, shows an American soldier with an AT4. The image at the right is a screengrab taken from the video posted on May 29. © DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) and Twitter / Sin Censura Tamaulipas

What more do we know about the AT4?

The AT4 is manufactured in Sweden by the company Saab Bofors Dynamics. It’s also manufactured in the United States. This weapon is only used by militaries. 

According to the website of the manufacturer, Saab Bofors Dynamics, the AT4 is used by militaries of more than 15 countries. It is currently being used in Ukraine against the Russians. This company also sold this weapon to Venezuela back in the 1980s. The Colombian guerilla group, the FARC, also got their hands on some AT4s – as reported back in 2009. The arms experts who spoke to our team said that it is possible that the AT4 in the video comes from Colombia or another Latin American country.

The Mexican army doesn’t use AT4s. However, there have been a number of videos that have circulated in the past that show narco-traffickers with weapons that look like the AT4 (like this video or this one, both filmed in 2022). Again, however, it is impossible to know if the weapons shown are real rocket launchers or replicas.  The specialists who spoke to our team don’t think that cartels have ever used this type of weapon. However, Mexican authorities did seize a number of rocket launchers back in 2020, including several from Tamaulipas.

3. Unfounded claims about the weapon in the video

Shortly after the video was posted online in late May, the Russian embassy in Mexico published a tweet in which it insinuated that the AT4 visible in the footage is likely a weapon sent to Ukraine by the West that was then put up for sale on the global black market by corrupt Ukrainian officials. The tweet was viewed 1.2 million times and garnered more than 13,000 likes.

In this tweet, the Russian embassy in Mexico said, “We’d like to point out [these] anti-tank rocket launchers (probably) AT4 [...]. This type of weapon is sent to Ukraine. [...] It’s been clear for some time to everyone that corrupt Ukrainian officials established channels to supply the global black market with weapons received by the West […] which undermines security in different regions of the world [...].
In this tweet, the Russian embassy in Mexico said, “We’d like to point out [these] anti-tank rocket launchers (probably) AT4 […]. This type of weapon is sent to Ukraine. […] It’s been clear for some time to everyone that corrupt Ukrainian officials established channels to supply the global black market with weapons received by the West […] which undermines security in different regions of the world […].” © Twitter / Embajada de Rusia en México

According to the arms experts who spoke to our team, it’s unlikely that the weapon in the video comes from Ukraine. 

“If the cartels could buy weapons destined for Ukraine, we’d see other weapons also proliferating like MANPADS [man-portable air-defence systems]”, said Andrei Serbin Pont.

4. Conclusion

This video was likely filmed in Tamaulipas state, in Mexico, by members of a faction of the Gulf Cartel. However, it is impossible to determine if the weapon shown in the footage is a real AT4, a model to be used for training or a BB gun-like replica.

If it is a real AT4, there is also a chance that it has already been used and is thus obsolete. Finally, it is very unlikely that this weapon is linked in any way to weapons sent to Ukraine by the West, even though AT4 are often used there.



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Explained | Ukraine’s recent round of weapons acquisition

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, shakes hands with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after addressing a media conference in Berlin on Sunday, May 14, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Germany on Saturday announced fresh military aid valued at around $3 billion as the country continues to fight against a Russian invasion that began in February 2022.

The move was announced by Germany right before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was scheduled to visit Berlin for the first time since the Russian invasion. President Zelenskyy arrived in Germany on Sunday after meeting Italian leaders and Pope Francis in Rome.

The Hindu looks at recent military aid acquired by Ukraine.

Germany

According to German news organisation Der Spiegel, the new military aid package for Ukraine includes 30 Leopard 1 A5 tanks, 20 Marder armoured personnel carriers, more than 100 combat vehicles, 18 self-propelled Howitzers, 200 reconnaissance drones, four IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft systems and other air defence equipment.

The Leopard tanks are manufactured by German defence equipment and technology company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. The Leopard 1 tank was first manufactured in 1965 and its upgrades are still in use in nine countries. According to Army Recognition, the Leopard 1 A5 is an improved version of the Leopard 1A1A1 main battle tank (MBT) which was the first upgrade of the Leopard tank.

The Leopard 1 A5 tank was based on a research project undertaken in 1980. It has night vision, computerised fire control, and an automatic fire detection and extinguishing system.

Earlier this year, Germany had announced that it will provide Leopard 2 tanks – one of the most advanced MBTs in the world – to Ukraine.

The IRIS-T surface launch missile (SLM) system is manufactured by German weapons manufacturer Diehl Defence. It was successfully tested for the first time in 2014.

According to Army Recognition, IRIS-T SLM provides 360° protection against aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, and guided weapons. It can simultaneously engage multiple targets from very short to medium range within brief reaction times.

Each IRIS-T SLM system consists of three vehicles – a missile launcher, a radar, and a fire-control radar, with integrated logistics and support, as reported by Deutsche Welle. The missiles use infrared imaging to identify targets. They have a range of 40 kilometres (km) and an altitude coverage of 20 km.

France

The next stop on President Zelenskyy’s multinational Europe tour was France, where he spent three hours at the Elysee Palace meeting French President Emmanuel Macron. Although specific numbers were not disclosed, Mr. Macron’s office said that France will supply dozens of light tanks, armoured vehicles, and air defence systems to Ukraine. France is also aiming to train around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers this year.

In the past, France has provided an array of weaponry, include air defence systems, light tanks, howitzers and other arms and equipment and fuel to Ukraine.

The United Kingdom

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy arrived in London on Monday to meet U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and secure more military aid for his country. The U.K. announced that over the next few months, it will send hundreds of air defence missiles and additional unmanned aerial systems, including hundreds of new long-range (greater than 200 km range) attack drones, to Ukraine.

A week before the meeting between Mr. Sunak and Mr. Zelenskyy, the U.K. had confirmed that it had provided Ukraine with Storm Shadow, a long-range cruise missile.

The Storm Shadow is an air-launched, long-range cruise missile designed by MBDA Systems for “pre-planned attacks against high value fixed or stationary targets”.

It weighs 1,300 kg and has a range more than 250 km. It is capable of being operated at all times of the day, and is not limited by weather. It combines inertial navigation system, global positioning system, and terrain referencing to achieve high accuracy.

On Saturday, Russia accused Ukraine of striking two industrial sites in the Russian-held city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine with Storm Shadow. Right before Russia’s accusation, the U.K. had admitted that it supplied Ukraine with long-range missiles, becoming the first country to say so, news agency Reuters reported.

Despite his fast-paced Europe trip, Mr. Zelenskyy’s demand for fighter jets remained unfulfilled. The absence of NATO-compatible jets has been a significant disadvantage for Ukraine, whose pilots are used to flying MiG-29s and Sukhoi jets.

According to U.K.’s official statement, the country will start training Ukrainian pilots this summer while it works with other nations to provide Kyiv with F-16 jets.

So far, the U.S. has the largest country-wise share in aid provided to Ukraine since February 2022. According to an analysis by Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the U.S. has provided more than $75 billion in aid to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military support.

Country-wise support to Ukraine

Country-wise support to Ukraine
| Photo Credit:
Kiel Institute for the World Economy

In addition to the recently committed European military aid to Ukraine, the U.S. has promised its Abrams tank, Patriot missiles, NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System), Himars rocket launcher system (M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), and Stryker armoured fighting vehicles, while the U.K. has promised Challenger tanks and Starstreak missiles.

  • Germany on Saturday announced fresh military aid valued at around $3 billion as Ukraine continues to fight against a Russian invasion that began in February 2022. The move was announced by Germany right before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was scheduled to visit Berlin for the first time since the Russian invasion.
  • The new military aid package for Ukraine includes 30 Leopard 1 A5 tanks, 20 Marder armoured personnel carriers, more than 100 combat vehicles, 18 self-propelled Howitzers, 200 reconnaissance drones, four IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft systems and other air defence equipment.
  • The Leopard 1 A5 tank was based on a research project undertaken in 1980. It has night vision, computerised fire control, and an automatic fire detection and extinguishing system.

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Who is sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, and is it enough?

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s arrival to Europe in early February came with a clear message for his allies: give us combat aircraft and heavy weapons, and don’t delay.

“The sooner Ukraine can get powerful, long-range weapons […] the sooner this Russian aggression will end and we will bring peace back to Europe,” he said in a joint statement with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris on 8 February.

But the decision to provide Ukraine – which is not a NATO member and thus is not protected by collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty – with heavy weapons is fraught with potential problems, as countries weigh up supporting Ukraine militarily against concerns of potentially escalating the conflict.

So, which countries are sending heavy weapons to Ukraine? And are they doing enough?

What are countries sending?

The US, UK, Poland and Germany have spent the most military support for Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine support tracker.

The same data shows that the United States is clearly leading the way, having pledged €44,3 billion since January 2022.

“The United States has led by far, it’s not even close,” said Brad Bowmann, Senior Director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “And, I think that, combined with Ukrainian bravery and agility, is the reason why Ukraine continues to exist.”

The UK is the second-largest provider of military support to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute.

Data shows that the UK has supplied a wealth of rockets, defence systems, armoured vehicles, weapons, ammunition and training to Ukraine over the last year, to the tune of €2.5 billion. On 14 January 2023, the UK became the first country to provide Ukraine with Challenger 2s, the main modern western battle tank.

According to data from the Kiel Institute, Poland, which shares its eastern border with Ukraine, pledged €2.4 billion in military aid last year. Germany also exported over €2.4 billion in military goods.

“I would point to the Poles as playing a particularly-laudable role. I would point out the Baltic countries as playing a very positive role. You know, big surprise right there on the eastern flank of NATO, they’re closest to the Russian bear, and so they have no illusions about our adversary there”, said Brad Bowmann.

While not a big spender compared to the likes of the US and UK, Estonia is, however, the top provider of defence and humanitarian aid, they have spent around 1.1% of their GDP.

Indeed, Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has said that “If Ukraine fell, freedom would also be in danger in other parts of the world. By helping Ukraine to defend its independence, we are defending the right to freedom and democracy of all countries, including Estonia.”

In 2022, Poland and Estonia were reportedly seeking to raise the alliance’s defence spending benchmark from 2% to 2.5% or even 3% of member countries’ GDP.

Are NATO members sending enough?

The US, the UK and Germany are sending tanks, and Germany has allowed other Western countries to send its homemade tanks from their fleets, but this doesn’t appear to have silenced Kyiv’s call for heavy weapons.

Ukraine has urged the West to provide fighter jets to defend the country against Russia. On his visit to the UK last month, Zelenskyy asked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “give us wings.”  And, US President Joe Biden has already “ruled out” sending the highly sought-after F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

“The F-16s could provide a number of benefits, of capabilities for Ukraine, no doubt. The response the Biden administration is giving is that’s not what they need most right now. I agree with that,” Brad Bowmann told Euronews.

Instead, Bowmann stressed that NATO allies could be doing much more in terms of fulfilling their defence spending pledges. 

“I would just quickly point to […] the most recent report on defence spending by NATO. We still, at this late hour, have most of our European allies not honouring their defence spending commitments. I mean, come on, that’s deeply disappointing,” he told Euronews.

“I’m not a reflexive critic of Europe here, but I mean, come on: the largest land invasion in Europe since World War Two; a major assault on a European capital; tens of thousands of people being murdered and killed in an unjust war trying to defend their homes and you’re not going to honour your defence spending commitments? […] We don’t have the logistics here. Here, Ukraine, here are four tanks. Oh, here are eight tanks. Here are 12 tanks. They need hundreds of tanks!”

Are heavy weapons arriving quickly enough?

In February, the Biden administration pledged to send the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb, or GLSDB, a system with a far greater range than Ukraine’s Western-supplied artillery rockets.

However, these weapons are not expected to arrive until autumn and experts fear this will be too late as key Russian and Ukrainian offensives are expected and could determine how the war will play out.

“A lot of countries, including the United States […] have done what we call ‘the cheque’s in the mail’ approach: hey, we’re going to send this or that. And in a lot of cases, the item in question will not arrive until four months later,” Bowmann explained.

“If you’re a Ukrainian fighting on the front lines, seeing your buddies getting killed and maimed […] the ‘cheque’s in the mail’ approach is probably particularly dissatisfying for them […] especially when they understand that they literally are on the frontier of freedom, fighting for all of us.”

Fear of provocation

In a speech to the Bundestag on 25 January, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would finally send 14 Leopard 2A tanks to Ukraine and would also allow other countries to re-export theirs if they wished to do so.

Berlin was initially hesitant to pledge heavy weapons deliveries, citing concerns about potentially escalating the conflict. It chose instead to offer non-lethal equipment, like combat helmets. 

It was heavily criticised for this, notably by President Zelenskyy. There was also pressure from fellow European neighbours, such as Poland, to approve the re-export of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Bowmann made reference to Ukraine’s former President Petro Porosheko’s 2014 visit to the White House to ask then-President Barack Obama for weapons to fight Russia-backed separatists in Crimea.

In a speech to the US Senate and House of Representatives, he said “Blankets and night-vision goggles are also important. But one cannot win the war with blankets.”

“He was saying that because the Obama administration refused to provide weapons to Ukraine. Why? Why? Because we didn’t want to provoke Putin,” Bowmann explained.

“So my core message to anyone willing to listen is that we should spend more time helping build beleaguered democracies and less time worrying about provoking authoritarian bullies who are probably going to invade anyway.”

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