Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Ukraine war: Fury in Russia at military top brass, killer drones, Sweden NATO membership

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1. Russian fury over devastating strike on troops in Ukraine

Russians have called on military commanders to be punished after scores of Russian soldiers were killed in a Ukrainian strike. 

Nationalist bloggers and lawmakers accuse Russia’s top brass of ignoring the risk of a Ukrainian strike and putting troops in a dangerous situation. 

In a rare disclosure, Russia’s defence ministry said 63 soldiers were killed on New Year’s Eve, following a large blast that destroyed a temporary barracks in Makiivka, a city in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv claimed the death toll was around 400 Russian soldiers killed and 300 more injured in the incident, making it one of the deadliest strikes in the war so far. 

Russian critics said the soldiers were housed by military commanders next to an ammunition dump, amplifying the devastation caused by the Ukrainian strike. 

The site was hit by four rockets fired from US-made HIMARS launchers, according to Russia’s defence ministry. 

Russian military bloggers, who wield considerable influence in the country, also condemned top brass for knowing the site was within range of Ukrainian rockets.

Many of those killed were recently mobilised troops, meaning they have been called up by Russian authorities, rather than volunteered to fight. 

Igor Girkin, one of the highest-profile Russian military bloggers, said hundreds of men had been killed or wounded. Ammunition had been stored at the site and military equipment there was uncamouflaged, he said.

“What happened in Makiivka is horrible,” wrote Archangel Spetznaz Z, another Russian blogger with more than 700,000 followers. “Who came up with the idea to place personnel in large numbers in one building, where even a fool understands that even if they hit with artillery, there will be many wounded or dead?” 

Commanders “couldn’t care less”, he added. 

2. Putin orders vetting of documentaries about Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government on Tuesday to screen “documentary films” on the war in Ukraine.

The Ministry of Culture must now screen national documentary films in cinemas on subjects related to what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine and the fight against “Ukrainian neo-Nazis”, a message published by the Kremlin website read.

Russia justifies its war in Ukraine as an attempt to “de-Nazify” the country, denouncing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and leaders in Kyiv as ultra-nationalists.

Experts have challenged the claim that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis as false, calling it a lie. 

This decision to vet video about Ukraine comes amid several Russian setbacks on the battle filed. In recent months, Moscow’s forces have abandoned the northeastern Kharkiv region and Kherson, a city in the south.

Since the start of the invasion in February, Russia has passed several laws that control information about the Ukraine war. 

One law severely punishes all those who spread what the authorities consider as “lies” about the Russian armed forces.

3. France reiterates support for Sweden’s NATO bid

French President Emmanual Macron expressed his country’s continued support for Sweden’s bid to join NATO on Tuesday, during a trip to the Nordic nation. 

Meeting the Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Stockholm, Macron restated his desire to see the accession of Sweden and Finland to the western military alliance. 

Sweden, along with Finland, launched a bid to join NATO in May 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Though the pair were closely allied with the US-led alliance, they were not formally part of NATO. 

Their membership is currently blocked by Turkey and Hungary. 

Macron said he wanted Sweden’s accession to become a reality “as soon as possible”, while his Swedish counterpart expressed a keenness to strengthen cooperation with France in the defence and space sectors.

“You can count on France’s support and solidarity,” Macron insisted.

The two leaders reaffirmed Europe’s determination to support Ukraine as it faces the Russian offensive and winter sets in.

“The Ukrainians need our support more than ever,” said Macron. 

“The victory of Ukraine is existential for Europe and for the whole world,” Ulf Kristersson added.

Macron was visiting Sweden to explore the possibility of building a new nuclear power station in the Nordic country, among other things. 

It was his first visit to an EU capital since Sweden took over the six-month rotating EU Council Presidency on 1 January. 

4. Drone advances in Ukraine could bring dawn of killer robots

Drone advances in Ukraine have accelerated a long-anticipated technological trend that could see the world’s first fully autonomous robots on the battlefield

Military analysts and researchers warn that the longer the war lasts, the more likely it becomes that drones will be used to identify, select and attack targets without help from humans.

Such a development could inaugurate a new age of warfare, marking a revolution in military technology as profound as the introduction of the machine gun. 

Ukraine already has semi-autonomous attack drones and counter-drone weapons that use AI. Russia also claims to possess AI weaponry, though this is unproven. 

To date, there are no confirmed cases of a country fielding combat robots that have killed entirely on their own.

Experts say it may be only a matter of time before either Russia or Ukraine deploy them.

“Many states are developing this technology,” said Zachary Kallenborn, a George Mason University weapons innovation analyst. ”Clearly, it’s not all that difficult.”

Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, agrees that fully autonomous killer drones are “a logical and inevitable next step” in weapons development. 

He said Ukraine has been doing “a lot of R&D in this direction.”

“I think that the potential for this is great in the next six months,” Fedorov told reporters in a recent interview.

Ukrainian military leaders currently prohibit the use of fully independent lethal weapons, although that could change.

5. Bulgaria weans itself off Russian gas, signing deal with Turkey

Bulgaria signed an energy agreement with Turkey on Tuesday, in an attempt to diversify supplies following the cessation of Russian gas deliveries due to the Ukraine war. 

“This [deal] will allow us to buy gas from all international producers and unload it in Turkey, where it suits us,” Bulgaria’s acting energy minister Rossen Hristov said.

According to the Turkish Energy Minister, Fatih Donmez, the contract covers the next thirteen years and may mean that up to 1.5 billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are transported per year. 

This amount of gas equates to roughly half of Bulgaria’s needs.

The agreement between the Bulgarian public gas operator Bulgargaz and the Turkish public gas company Botas provides access to both country’s terminals and Turkish transit networks. 

It also contains a pledge to “increase the security of [gas] deliveries” throughout the Balkan region. 

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Moscow gave Bulgaria — an EU member — almost all the gas it needs, which is estimated at 3 billion cubic metres of gas.

Russia suspended deliveries in April 2022, as Sofia was one of the countries that refused to pay for gas in rubles as demanded by Russia in retaliation for EU sanctions.

Currently, Bulgaria imports about one billion cubic meters of natural gas from Azerbaijan. 

In July, it inaugurated a new gas pipeline linking to Greece and supplies by LNG from the US.

Numisteamone

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