Ukraine war: Russian threat growing, front line troops fear

A soldier walks by a residential building in the town of Lyman
Image caption,Heavy fighting is raging in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, amid freezing temperatures

Ukrainian troops on the front lines in the Donbas have told the BBC that Russian forces are “learning every day and changing their strategy” as they continue to gain ground around the heavily contested town of Bakhmut. But the soldiers also insisted that morale remains high, despite growing exhaustion after almost a year of war.

The two Ukrainian soldiers swept into the room, still visibly flushed with adrenalin, having just driven straight from the furiously active front lines along the rolling, snow-covered hills further south. Peering over a giant map at their brigade’s temporary headquarters, they jabbed at the spots where Russian forces were inching forwards towards a key road.

“They were about 400 metres [437 yards] from us, across the field just here. We’re holding on, but it’s getting harder,” said Sgt Denys Kalchuk from the all-volunteer Dnipro-1 Battalion, going on to describe how Russian infantry, fighter jets and artillery units appeared to be operating with growing co-ordination and effectiveness around Bakhmut.

“The planes are the worst. You can’t hear them until it’s too late. It’s the same with the tanks. Artillery is easier – at least you might have a second or two [to dive for cover] after you hear them coming,” said Sgt Kalchuk.

Assessing the overall state of the conflict across the Donbas is extremely difficult. Access is challenging and dangerous, and dozens of different Ukrainian battalions and brigades are working on separate tasks, amid some secrecy, spread out along hundreds of miles of often fast-changing front lines.

Ukrainian forces fire a mortar in the Donbas
Image caption,Ukrainian troops say Russian forces are operating with growing co-ordination and effectiveness around Bakhmut

But after several weeks travelling across the region, and more than a dozen on-the-record interviews and frank off-the-record discussions with a broad range of Ukrainian soldiers, I have seen various themes emerging.

For weeks, Russia’s notorious mercenary group Wagner has led much of the fighting around Bakhmut, sustaining catastrophic numbers of casualties by launching near-suicidal mass infantry attacks on smaller towns like Soledar. But in recent days, according to some Ukrainian soldiers, Russia’s regular army has resumed a more prominent role, with noticeable effect.

“It is very hard for us now. We understand that Russia is learning every day and changing their strategy. And I think we need to learn faster,” said Dmytro Podvorchanskyi, who heads a reconnaissance unit in Dnipro-1.

He and others spoke of the way well-equipped regular Russian forces were now hiding and dispersing their ammunition stores far better and targeting Ukrainian logistics routes more effectively. As a result, they are continuing to gain ground around Bakhmut and threatening another potentially significant town, Vuhledar, further south.

Dmytro Podvorchanskyi
Image caption,Dmytro Podvorchanskyi says Ukrainian troops need to learn faster

But there is no indication, as yet, that Russian forces are poised to make a strategically significant breakthrough. One senior commander said Western supplies had now brought a balance to what had been a deeply uneven artillery war, and that Western tanks could soon tip the overall balance in Ukraine’s favour.

While it is no surprise that many Ukrainian troops are suffering from exhaustion after months of conflict, morale, in general, appears to be holding.

“There have been cases of [Ukrainian] units who don’t seem willing to fight, and disagreements [over tactics],” one Ukrainian soldier acknowledged, speaking off the record.

Others talked about the trauma of seeing their friends die, of units that had sustained overwhelming numbers of casualties and of the psychological impact of fighting amidst the corpses of so many uncollected Russian soldiers. One soldier, citing fears of a new Russian mobilisation and the huge size of the enemy’s population, spoke of his fear that “Russia will grind us down”. But most troops we met waved away such doubts, blaming them on exhaustion and – in general – praising their commanders for giving them time to rest.

Destruction in a Donbas town
Image caption,Russia has devastated the Donbas region with bombing and shelling

One increasingly common excuse offered for Ukraine’s struggles around Bakhmut is the theory that relatively weak and inexperienced units are now being left to hold the line here, while the army’s strongest forces are being moved elsewhere ahead of a widely anticipated Ukrainian counterattack, or counterattacks.

The location of any such potential offensives remains the subject of much speculation among Ukrainian troops. Some anticipate a push further north, into Luhansk province, while others wonder about an attack south towards Melitopol, in order to isolate and threaten Russian forces in and around the Crimean peninsula.

One experienced officer said he believed Russia was looking to straighten its frontline, take a few more chunks of the Donbas, and then declare “mission accomplished” and push for peace negotiations. He said he was sure Ukraine would never agree to that but warned that the military would need Western fighter jets to break through all of Russia’s new defences, particularly in the south of the country.

BBC News – February 1, 2023

Exhibition lays bare Church of England’s links to slave trade

Artefacts on show at Lambeth Palace Library include a ‘slave bible’, with all mention of ‘freedom’ removed

Lambeth Palace, London.
Lambeth Palace in London is the venue for the exhibition entitled Enslavement: Voices from the Archives. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

From a “slave bible” with the passages relating to freedom and escape removed to documents revealing the Church of England’s involvement in a fund linked to transatlantic chattel slavery, a new exhibition lays bare the church’s colonial legacy.

The exhibition of original artefacts, some of which are on display for the first time, in Lambeth Palace Library is the latest step in a wide-ranging programme of work launched in 2019 that aims to “address past wrongs” by researching the church’s historical links to the slave trade.

Chief executive of the Church Commissioners for England, Gareth Mostyn, said the extent of the church’s relationship to slavery uncovered through the research was “shaming”, and described the exhibits as “shocking and upsetting”. “We are deeply sorry,” he said.

He added that the exhibition was an opportunity to show “really impactful documents” unearthed through the church’s research, which aims to “make sure that our history is told and that we’re transparent about what we have learned”.

Select sections of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves. (London, 1808)
Select sections of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves (London, 1808). Photograph: Lambeth Palace Library

The exhibition sits alongside a £100m fund which the C of E has referred to as compensation rather than reparations. But the sum has been criticised for falling far short of the estimated £1.3bn profit from investments connected to the slave trade. “No amount of money would ever be enough to repair the damage,” said Mostyn.

The exhibits on show at Lambeth Palace, which is the church’s national library and archive, includes one of an estimated only three or four “slave bibles”, published in 1807-8 by an Anglican society. These books contained only around 20% of the bible’s original text.

There are also two letters written by enslaved people, and sent to archbishops, featuring pleas for freedom.

There is also a section dedicated to the church’s direct involvement in the slave trade, which was revealed in a report published three weeks ago.

The exhibition displays early 18th-century ledgers from the Queen Anne’s Bounty, a fund set up to tackle poverty among clergymen in 1704 which included prominent slave trader Edward Colston among its benefactors.

The fund made significant investments in the South Sea Company, which the church knew was involved in purchasing and transporting enslaved people as its main commercial activity between 1714 and 1739.

The exhibition also features early abolitionist views, which Giles Mandelbrote, librarian and archivist at Lambeth Palace Library, said was intended to showcase the “spectrum of opinion about the slave trade”, rather than seeking to convey the dominant narrative of the time.

Prof Robert Beckford, a theologian and director of the University of Winchester’s institute for climate and social justice, said this was characteristic of the C of E’s engagement with its relationship to slavery in the Caribbean.

“The focus on abolition is an obfuscation of the horror of the slave trade and a willingness to collude with the sub-humanisation of black people,” he said.

Entry in Queen Anne’s Bounty Accounts Ledger Vol. 3 showing money received from the executors of Edward Colston.
Entry in Queen Anne’s Bounty accounts ledger showing money received from the executors of Edward Colston. Photograph: Lambeth Palace Library

“What it means ultimately is there is no recognition of how the church’s theological ideas made slavery possible.”

He added that this was reflected in a key omission from the exhibition: the Codrington Estate in Barbados, which was bequeathed to the Anglican church in 1710 and run by the church’s missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), with several archbishops sitting on its board.

Codrington was a plantation farmed by hundreds of enslaved Africans and has been described by the chair of the Caricom reparations committee, Hilary Beckles, as “one of the most brutal in Barbados”, with slaves branded with hot irons bearing the SPG’s logo.

“While the exhibition is a welcome first step, the failure to explore its entanglement with Codrington is at best disingenuous, at worst evidence of whitewashing the church’s involvement in running a slave plantation in Barbados,” he said.

The Church Commissioners for England said the estate fell outside the scope of the exhibition since it was owned by the SPG, which does its own research into its history.

Codrington Estate will feature in a play about an Anglican slave authored by Desirée Baptiste, readings of which will be staged at Lambeth Palace Library on 22 February and 15 March.

She said she was grateful for the opportunity to teach audiences about an important part of Caribbean history.

“The exhibition reflects interesting voices, but to do justice to Archbishop Justin Welby’s desire for ‘transparency’ the full truth about British slavery must be aired, especially the Codrington story.

“For me, it would be like putting on a play about the holocaust and leaving out Auschwitz.”

Enslavement: Voices from the Archives is at Lambeth Palace Library in central London until 31 March 2023 and can be visited 9:30am-5pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am-5pm on Saturday 4 March. Admission is free.

The Guardian – January 31, 2023

Key suspects in killing of Haiti president Jovenel Moïse ‘sent to US for trial’

Investigations in Haiti have reached a virtual standstill after threats and intimidation against judges

A person holds a photo of late Haitian President Jovenel Moise during his memorial ceremony
Haitian president Jovenel Moise was killed in July 2022. Four key suspects are not in US custody Photograph: Matias Delacroix/AP

Four key suspects in the killing of the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse were transferred to the US for prosecution, according to officials, as the case stagnates in Haiti amid death threats against local judges.

The suspects in custody include James Solages, 37, and Joseph Vincent, 57, two Haitian-Americans who were among the first arrested after Moïse was shot 12 times at his private home near the capital of Port-au-Prince on 7 July 2021.

Also charged is Christian Emmanuel Sanon, an elderly pastor, doctor and businessman whom authorities have identified as a key player. His associates have suggested he was duped by the real – and still unidentified – masterminds behind the assassination that plunged Haiti deep into political chaos and unleashed a level of gang violence not seen in decades.

The fourth suspect was identified as Colombian citizen Germán Rivera García, 44, who is among nearly two dozen former Colombian soldiers charged in the case.

Rivera, along with Solages and Vincent, face charges including conspiring to commit murder or kidnapping outside the US and providing material support and resources resulting in death, the US justice department said.

Sanon is charged with conspiring to smuggle goods from the US and providing unlawful export information. Court documents show that he allegedly shipped 20 ballistic vests to Haiti, but that the items shipped were described as “medical X-ray vests and school supplies”.

It was not immediately known if the four suspects had attorneys who could comment on the development. The men are scheduled to appear in federal court on Wednesday in Miami.

A total of seven suspects in the case are in US custody. Dozens of others, however, are still in Haiti’s main prison, which is reportedly severely overcrowded and often lacks food and water for inmates.

The case as reached a virtual standstill in Haiti, with local officials last year nominating a fifth judge to investigate the killing after four others were dismissed or resigned for personal reasons.

One judge told the Associated Press that his family asked him not to take the case because they feared for his life. Another judge stepped down after one of his assistants died under murky circumstances.

Haiti police say other high-profile suspects remain at large, including a former supreme court judge who authorities say was favoured to seize power from Moïse. Another fugitive is Joseph Badio, alleged leader of the plot who previously worked for Haiti’s justice ministry and the government’s anti-corruption unit until he was fired, police say.

Emmanuel Jeanty, an attorney for the president’s widow, Martine Moïse, who was injured in the attack and flown to the US for care, did not return a message for comment.

In December, Martine Moïse tweeted that her husband – who also has been accused of corruption, which he denied – had fought against it, which resulted in his assassination.

“Despite the blockages, 17 months later, the people are demanding #Justice,” she wrote.

The Guardian – February 1, 2023

Your Body Knows You’re Burned Out

Here’s how to recognize the physical symptoms of work-related stress — and what to do about them.

Credit…Alva Skog

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Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, knows she’s edging toward burnout when she wakes up, feels instantly angry at her email inbox and doesn’t want to get out of bed. It’s perhaps not surprising that a mental health professional who is trying to stem the rising tide of burnout could burn out sometimes, too. After all, the phenomenon has practically become ubiquitous in our culture.

In a 2021 survey of 1,500 U.S. workers, more than half said they were feeling burned out as a result of their job demands, and a whopping 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December in what has come to be known as the “great resignation.” When people think of burnout, mental and emotional symptoms such as feelings of helplessness and cynicism often come to mind. But burnout can lead to physical symptoms as well, and experts say it can be wise to look out for the signs and take steps when you notice them.

Burnout, as it is defined, is not a medical condition — it’s “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress,” explained Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic. The World Health Organization describes burnout as a workplace phenomenon characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficacy.

“You start not functioning as well, you’re missing deadlines, you’re frustrated, you’re maybe irritable with your colleagues,” said Jeanette M. Bennett, a researcher who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

But stress can have wear and tear effects on the body, especially when it doesn’t ease up after a while — so it makes sense that it can incite physical symptoms, too, Dr. Bennett said. When people are under stress, their bodies undergo changes that include making higher than normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These changes are helpful in the short term — they give us the energy to power through difficult situations — but over time, they start harming the body.

Our bodies were “not designed for the kinds of stressors that we face today,” said Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent her career studying burnout.

Here’s how to recognize burnout in your body and what to do about it.

One common burnout symptom is insomnia, Dr. Dyrbye said. When researchers in Italy surveyed frontline health care workers with burnout during the first peak of the pandemic, they found that 55 percent reported having difficulty falling asleep, while nearly 40 percent had nightmares.

Research suggests that chronic stress interferes with the complicated neurological and hormonal system that regulates sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, because not sleeping throws this system even more out of whack. If you’ve noticed you’re unable to sleep at night, that could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout, Dr. Dyrbye said — and your sleeplessness could exacerbate the problem.

Physical exhaustion is another common sign. Dr. Gold said that one of her key symptoms of burnout was fatigue. “I realized I was sleeping every day after work — and I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ but it was actually burnout,” she said.

Changes in eating habits — either eating more or less than usual — can also be a sign of burnout: In the study of Italian health care workers, 56 percent reported changes in food habits. People might eat less because they’re too busy or distracted, or they might find themselves craving “those comfort foods that we all like to go to when we need something to make us feel better,” Dr. Bennett said. Research suggests, too, that stress hormones can affect appetite, making people feel less hungry than usual when they’re under a lot of stress, and more hungry than usual when that stress alleviates.

Headaches and stomachaches can also be incited by burnout, Dr. Gold said. One study of people in Sweden suffering from exhaustion disorder — a medical condition similar to burnout — found that 67 percent reported experiencing nausea, gas or indigestion, and that 65 percent had headaches. It’s also important to note that burnout can develop alongside depression or anxiety, both of which can cause physical symptoms. Depression can cause muscle aches, stomachaches, sleep issues and appetite changes. Anxiety is linked to headaches, nausea and shortness of breath.

If you’re experiencing physical symptoms that could be indicative of burnout, consider seeing your primary care doctor or a mental health professional to determine whether they are driven by stress or rooted in other physical conditions, Dr. Dyrbye said. Don’t just ignore the symptoms and assume they don’t matter.

“It’s really easy to blow off your own symptoms, especially in our culture, where we’re taught to work hard,” Dr. Gold said.

If it is burnout, then the best solution is to address the root of the problem. Burnout is typically recognized when it is job-driven, but chronic stress can have a variety of causes — financial problems, relationship woes, and caregiving burdens, among other things. Think about “the pebbles in your shoe all the time that you have to deal with,” Dr. Maslach said, and brainstorm ways to remove some of them, at least some of the time. Perhaps you can ask your partner to help more with your toddler’s bedtime routine, or get take-out when you’re especially busy so you don’t have to plan dinner, too.

Despite popular culture coverage of the issue, burnout can’t be “fixed” with better self care, Dr. Maslach said — in fact, this implication only worsens the problem, because it lays the blame and responsibility on those with burnout and implies that they should do more to feel better, which is not the case, she said. However, some lifestyle choices can make burnout less likely. Social support, for instance, can help, Dr. Gold said. This could include talking to a therapist or meeting with friends (even if over Zoom). It may also help to take advantage of mental health or exercise benefits offered by your employer. Sleeping more can help too — so if you’re suffering from insomnia, talk to a doctor about possible treatments, Dr. Bennett suggested.

When burnout stems from job-related woes, it may help to request better working conditions. Dr. Maslach suggested brainstorming with co-workers and presenting your employer with ideas that would help — like providing quiet areas for breaks and personal phone calls, creating “no meeting” days so that employees can have more time to focus, or ensuring that there’s always coffee in the break room. Even small changes like these can make a dent in the risk for burnout if they fix a problem people face at work every day. “It’s the chronic job stressors that drive people really nuts after a while — they don’t have the right equipment, they don’t have the things they need, they don’t have enough people to do the work,” Dr. Maslach said.

Taking time off work could also help, but it’s likely only a temporary Band-Aid, Dr. Gold said. She compares it to using a bucket to empty water out of a sinking ship. “It’s still sinking, right? You have to do more than just occasionally take the water out,” she said. Still, it is important to take time off regularly, Dr. Dyrbye said.

Ultimately, you want to ensure you have some freedom and autonomy in your job, Dr. Gold said. “Anything you can do to regain an element of control can be really helpful,” she said. That could mean doing your least favorite work activity right before your break, so you have something to look forward to during the task and time to recover from it afterward. Or it could be trading a dreaded task with a co-worker and, in return, picking up their most hated task, which might not be so difficult for you.

Finally, while you may not want to add more to your plate, try to make a bit of time each day for something you love, Dr. Dyrbye said. Her work has found that surgeons who make time for hobbies and recreation — even just 15 to 20 minutes a day — are less likely to experience burnout than surgeons who don’t.

“You have to have something outside of work that helps you de-stress, that helps you focus and helps you relax,” she said.

New York Times – May 3, 2022

Ukraine used land mines in the formerly occupied city of Izium, a new report claims.

A land mine warning sign next to a road in Izium, Ukraine, in September.
A land mine warning sign next to a road in Izium, Ukraine, in September.Credit…Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Ukrainian military has deployed thousands of antipersonnel mines in battle in apparent violation of an international treaty barring their use, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published on Tuesday.

The report said that artillery rockets carrying antipersonnel mines were fired toward Russian military targets in and around the northeastern Ukrainian city of Izium while it was under Russian control last year.

“Russian forces have repeatedly used antipersonnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but this doesn’t justify Ukrainian use of these prohibited weapons,” Stephen Goose, the executive director of the Human Rights Watch’s arms division, said in a statement.

The mines have been blamed for “causing civilian casualties and posing an ongoing risk,” Mr. Goose said.

Human rights groups have long condemned the use of antipersonnel land mines — small explosive weapons that typically detonate after an unsuspecting person steps on them — as a leading cause of preventable civilian casualties. They kill or maim thousands of people per year, many of them children, often long after conflicts have ended and the munitions are forgotten.

The weapons have been banned by a majority of countries because of their indiscriminate nature. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Ukraine ratified the Mine Ban Treaty, an international pact banning the possession and use of antipersonnel land mines, in 2005.

PFM antipersonnel mines, the kind used in Izium, are some of the smallest antipersonnel mines ever developed, dating back to the Cold War. They are packed together into a dispenser, such as a rocket warhead, that breaks open midair and scatters the mines randomly.

These mines are “inherently indiscriminate” because it is impossible to control where they fall, said Brian Castner, a weapons investigator at Amnesty International. “By their very nature, you can’t target military forces as opposed to civilians.”

They are usually green or brown, blending into their environment and making them tough to spot. Plus, “they are designed to maim and not necessarily kill you,” Mr. Caster said, “So it’s a particularly ugly and gruesome effect.”

According to an online resource for bomb-disposal technicians, the plastic-cased PFM-1 mine measures just over four and a half inches long, about two and a half inches wide and just over three quarters of an inch thick. It explodes when about 11 pounds of pressure is applied, meaning that even small children are at risk by stepping on one.

Eleven civilians have died from Ukrainian antipersonnel mines in the Izium area, and about 50 have been injured, including five children, the report said. Nearly half of the injuries required amputations of a patient’s foot or lower leg, according to local health care workers cited in the report.

All of the 100 people researchers interviewed for the report said they had seen the mines, been warned about them while Russian forces occupied Izium or knew someone who was injured by one.

The report adds to a growing list of documented brutalities in Izium during the war. Moscow’s forces seized the city last April, but Ukrainian troops reclaimed it in a September counteroffensive. After the Russians retreated, workers discovered mass grave sites containing hundreds of people who died in the months of Russian occupation, some showing signs of torture.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that it was investigating the findings of the report and called antipersonnel mines “inhumane.”

The report will be “duly studied by the competent authorities of Ukraine,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“We welcome further dialogue with the Ukrainian authorities on this issue,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement responding to the Foreign Ministry that it appended to the report on its website. “We hope that the government will carry out a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into our findings.”

New York Times -January 31, 2023

Russia claims village near embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

Defence ministry says Blahodatne captured with help of aerial support; no immediate comment by Ukraine.

A general view shows the front line city of Bakhmut, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine January 26, 2023.
A general view shows the front line city of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine [File: Yan Dobronosov/Reuters]

Russia says it has captured a village on the northern outskirts of Bakhmut as it intensifies efforts to surround the front-line city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

The village of Blahodatne, which is about five kilometres (three miles) north of Bakhmut, was captured with the help of aerial support, the Russian defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

There was no immediate response from Ukraine’s government, and Al Jazeera could not independently verify the account.

The announcement came three days after the head of Russia’s Wagner Group said the mercenary force had seized Blahodatne in an attack Ukraine said it had repelled.

(Al Jazeera)

Capturing Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of about 75,000 people, would be Russia’s first major battleground achievement since it took the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in July.

Regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said two civilians, including a boy, were killed in a Russian artillery attack on Bakhmut on Tuesday.

Separately on Tuesday, Ukraine said its forces had repelled Russian attacks on a road near Bakhmut, preventing Moscow gaining control of an important Ukrainian supply line.

Russian troops have been unable to cut off the road leading from the town Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut, military spokesperson Serhiy Cherevaty said in televised comments.

“Russian troops could not cut off the road which is used for supplying the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Ukrainian army in Bakhmut is supplied with everything necessary,” he said.

Russian forces have made several advances in the area in recent weeks, notably capturing the salt-mining town of Soledar to Bakhmut’s north.

Earlier this month, Russia also claimed it had captured Klishchiivka, a village in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, which had a pre-war population of about 400 people. The village sits about nine kilometres (six miles) south of Bakhmut.

This week, a large Russian force launched an assault against the Ukrainian-held bastion of Vuhledar, further south along the same eastern front. Russian officials have claimed to have gained a foothold there, but Kyiv says it has largely repelled that attack so far.

Military centres in Belarus

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday backed a plan to set up joint military training centres with Belarus, reigniting speculation that forces from the neighbouring country could join his troops in Ukraine.

In a decree, Putin tasked the defence and foreign ministers to conduct talks with Belarus and sign an agreement to establish the facilities.

The document did not specify where the centres would be based. Minsk allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory as a launching pad for its Ukraine offensive that began on February 24 last year.

For months, Belarus’s longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko has insisted that he will not send troops into Ukraine despite increasing military cooperation with Russia.

Ukrainian servicemen attend a joint drills of armed forces, national guards, border guards and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) at the border with Belarus, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen attend joint drills of armed forces, national guards, border guards and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) at the border with Belarus [File: Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

Earlier this month, the two countries launched joint air force drills in Belarus that are scheduled to last until February 1.

“Some experts say the exercises could be a diversion tactic to lure Ukrainian forces away from the frontlines in the east and south,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from near the Ukraine-Belarus border, where Ukrainian forces have been training amid a potential threat military threat from Belarus.

“Few people here expected this war and no one pretends they know what Moscow is planning. But they are watching closely and say they are ready.”

France to send more weapons

Separately, defence minister Sebastien Lecornu said on Tuesday that France will send 12 further Caesar truck-mounted howitzers to Ukraine to help in the fight against Russia.

The artillery pieces, adding to 18 already delivered, would be financed from a 200-million-euro ($217m) fund set up by France after Russia’s invasion, Lecornu said in a joint news conference with his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksiy Reznikov, in Paris.

Alongside other Western-supplied mobile cannon such as the German Panzerhaubitze 2000, the Caesar was credited last year with helping Ukraine attack targets deep behind Russian lines, undermining Moscow’s offensive.

The truck-mounted 155mm guns can set up, fire a highly-accurate volley at ranges of up to 40km (25 miles) and shift position before the enemy can locate them and fire back.

Lecornu said the new batch of howitzers would be delivered in the coming weeks.

Denmark has also pledged its entire existing 19-strong fleet of the French-made howitzers to the Ukrainian war effort.


Al Jazeera -January 31, 2023

Russia owes its recent gains to increased troop numbers, Ukrainian forces say.

A Russian soldier at a combat position along the Dnipro river in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine in November.
A Russian soldier at a combat position along the Dnipro river in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine in November.Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Firepower has been crucial in Russia’s gains in the war, but Ukrainian fighters and analysts say that Moscow has relied increasingly on a more crude tactic as its forces try to take the eastern city of Bakhmut: the sheer weight of troop numbers.

Russian casualties in recent fighting in Bakhmut have been higher than in previous months as commanders have poured soldiers into the battle, the Ukrainians said.

The Kremlin is aiming for a significant victory after suffering battlefield setbacks in the south and northeast last fall and as both sides prepare for offensives in the coming weeks or months. Part of Russia’s evolving strategy, Ukrainian officials said, appears to be to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses with waves of soldiers.

That would be a departure from Russia’s summer campaigns for Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in Luhansk Province, in which artillery pounded the cities for weeks before Russia launched a sustained ground offensive.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called up 300,000 reservists in September, boosting the army’s strength, even if the new soldiers are relatively inexperienced. Several Ukrainian fighters told reporters from The New York Times that while Kyiv’s forces appeared to be better trained, they were at times overwhelmed by the numbers ranged against them. It was not possible to confirm that independently, and the Russian authorities have not laid out specifically how they deploy their forces, or spoken of how many casualties they are willing to tolerate.

Ukraine has also suffered heavy casualties in the battle for Bakhmut. It has mostly relied on national guard and other forces to hold its main defensive line in Bakhmut, with better-trained infantry units rushing in if those fighters are attacked or retreat.

For each side, the capacity to sustain troop losses has guided the approach to the struggle over Bakhmut, according to Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va.

The fight has cost Russia more in losses, because its fighters have often fought on foot, unsupported by armored vehicles, he said on a recent episode of the podcast War on the Rocks, adding that many of them were recruited from prisons by the Wagner private military group, rather than being regular troops.

The fight has also been costly for Ukraine, he said on the podcast. “Ukraine’s been forced to essentially trade higher quality troops to hold Bakhmut against expendable Russian forces,” he said, adding that the losses could “impede Ukrainian plans for an offensive down the line,” not least because the country no longer has an advantage in terms of overall troop numbers.

The pitched battle over Bakhmut also suggests that Ukraine has overcome its qualms about engaging directly in a drawn-out fight for a city and is prepared to sustain losses in the hope that it can deplete its enemy’s strength still further.

In the coming weeks and months, Ukraine will be strengthened by defensive and offensive weapons, including tanks and rocket systems supplied by the United States and other allies, but for now the extra Russian troops give Moscow an advantage.

“We understand the threats and challenges facing our country,” Ukraine’s head of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said in televised remarks on Tuesday. “We are preparing for this very hard.”

He said that half of the troops that Moscow mobilized recently had been sent to the front, while the others were training in Russia or Belarus. But Ukraine will be helped by the influx of support from Ukraine’s allies, he said.

New York Times – January 31, 2023

The Navy’s Dolphins Have a Few Things to Tell Us About Aging

In her youth, Blue was a standout mine-hunter for the U.S. military. She and her colleagues are now at the vanguard of geriatric marine mammal medicine.

SAN DIEGO — White caps were breaking in the bay and the rain was blowing sideways, but at Naval Base Point Loma, an elderly bottlenose dolphin named Blue was absolutely not acting her age. In a bay full of dolphins, she was impossible to miss, leaping from the water and whistling as a team of veterinarians approached along the floating docks.

“She’s always really happy to see us,” said Dr. Barb Linnehan, the director of animal health and welfare at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, a nonprofit research organization. “She acts like she’s a 20-year-old dolphin.”

But at 57, Blue is positively geriatric, one of the oldest dolphins in the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. So the doctors had come to check on her heart.

Dr. Linnehan unpacked a dolphin-friendly electrocardiogram and bent over the edge of the dock, where Blue had surfaced. Then she carefully pressed four rubber suction cups, each containing a Bluetooth-enabled electrode, onto the dolphin’s slippery skin.

Dr. Linnehan wiped the rain off her tablet and studied the screen. “That’s her arrhythmia there,” she said, pointing to an oscillating wave marching across the display. The team first detected the irregular heartbeat several years earlier and had been monitoring it ever since.

“What we are looking for is: Are we getting to a place where we need to start talking about intervention, like a pacemaker or medication,” Dr. Linnehan said. No one had ever put a pacemaker in a dolphin before, she noted, but “we’re willing to cross that bridge if she gets to that point.”

For more than half a century, the Navy has run its marine mammal program from this base on the rocky Point Loma peninsula, training bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to locate underwater mines, recover submerged objects and intercept rogue swimmers.

In that time, marine mammal medicine has advanced enormously, in part as a result of the Navy’s research. Consequently, the program’s veterinarians find themselves caring for an increasingly aged population of animals. “We’re just seeing things that we weren’t necessarily seeing decades ago, conditions that are associated with old age,” Dr. Linnehan said.

On a misty day, three workers with the marine mammal program walk along a network of floating docks at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, while a fourth kneels and reaches into the water to greet a dolphin.
The Marine Mammal Program at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego.

Dr. Barb Linnehan, the director of animal health and welfare at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, in green-brown hat, gave Blue a dolphin-friendly electrocardiogram.

So, in collaboration with researchers who study wild dolphins and with experts in human medicine, Navy scientists are now delving into geriatric marine mammal medicine. The pursuit could pay dividends not only for the Navy’s animals but also for wild ones — and, perhaps, even for people.

It could be the final frontier for the program, which is likely to leave a rich but ethically complicated scientific legacy. The Navy plans to phase out the program in the coming decades, said Mark Xitco, the program’s director. It has already stopped breeding dolphins and has turned some of their tasks over to underwater drones, he said.

In the years ahead, as the marine mammals are gradually replaced by technology, the animals will become less of a military asset and more of a scientific one.

“They will continue to serve the nation as that population of federal marine mammals that can be a resource for science,” Dr. Xitco said. He added, “Until, someday, we’re gone.”

When Navy scientists began working with their first dolphin, in 1959, they hoped simply to imitate it and learn how to design more hydrodynamic torpedoes. But marine mammals proved to have talents — deep-diving skills, keen underwater vision and, in some cases, top-notch sonar — that neither humans nor machines could match. So the Navy began training the animals to perform underwater tasks, deploying them in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

Technically, the marine mammal program was classified until the early 1990s, but it was a “pretty poorly kept secret,” Dr. Xitco said. Navy scientists helped create, and were heavily involved in, organizations for marine mammal researchers, he said, but “could neither confirm nor deny that we actually worked with the animals.”

Today, 77 dolphins and 47 sea lions are part of the program, which is managed by the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific and has an overall required budget of $40 million this year. About 300 people keep the program running. (Many are contractors; the National Marine Mammal Foundation, which was founded by several of the program’s veterinarians, helps provide veterinary care for the animals, for instance.)

The work often begins before dawn, when the yellow-hatted interns arrive at the “Fish House” to prepare meals for the animals. One morning last November, just after 6 a.m., the interns were busy sorting through sinks full of frozen herring, capelin and squid; pressing vitamins into the gills of a few still-icy fish; and portioning the seafood out into insulated buckets.

Dr. Barb Linnehan, the director of animal health and welfare at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, strokes the tail of Blue, a 57-year-old female dolphin.
Dr. Linnehan with Blue during her checkup. “She’s always really happy to see us,” she said. “She acts like she’s a 20-year-old dolphin.”

Morning meal prep at the Fish House, where interns packed vitamin-filled fish for the dolphins.

The buckets were then hauled out onto a pier jutting into San Diego Bay. Rows of floating docks crisscrossed the dolphins’ underwater enclosures. Trainers began tossing out breakfast and performing quick tip-to-tail checkups. The dolphins have been trained to cooperate, presenting their various body parts — teeth, belly, flukes — while their trainers give them the once-over.

Keeping the animals healthy is a critical part of the job, said Dr. Eric Jensen, the senior scientist for animal care. “You can’t go find mines, and you can’t go find bad people if you don’t feel good,” he said.

But the program’s veterinarians repeatedly note that they feel an ethical obligation to provide top-notch health care. Their affection for the animals is obvious, and Dr. Jensen — who joined some of the marine mammals on a 2003 deployment to Iraq — said that being part of the program was less a job than a lifestyle. He and his colleagues frequently refer to the animals as partners or teammates.

The animals have not volunteered for this life, however. In the program’s earlier years the Navy took dolphins from the wild. Although that practice ended decades ago, the program continues to draw criticism for keeping intelligent animals in captivity and conscripting them into human war efforts.

“I am not in favor of keeping dolphins the way they do for the purposes that they do,” said Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean intelligence and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, who visited the program and became friendly with some of its researchers early in her career.

The Navy’s dolphins do have opportunities that are not afforded to some other captive dolphins, such as open-ocean swimming sessions, and they are clearly highly valued, said Janet Mann, a marine-mammal scientist and behavioral ecologist at Georgetown University. “The Navy has obviously perfected how you can keep a large number of dolphins in captivity with very high survival,” she said. Still, she added, “The dolphins don’t have agency like they do in the wild.”

Dr. Xitco said that the animals have only been used for defensive purposes and that none have ever died in combat. But some details about the animals’ capabilities and assignments remain tightly held. (Although officials granted The Times permission to name Blue, they requested that the other animals’ names not be disclosed.) A two-day tour of the facilities last fall was closely chaperoned.

“I guess in theory there could be some other program around the corner that I’m not going to show you, where we’re doing things that you wouldn’t be comfortable with or others wouldn’t be comfortable with,” Dr. Xitco said. “That’s not the case.”

The Marine Mammal Program has its own laboratory and pharmacy.

A dolphin raises its head from the water during one of its many feeding and enrichment sessions for the day.
The program’s large, well-trained animal population allowed the Navy to pioneer new medical techniques that have since been used in wild populations.

After completing Blue’s exam, Dr. Linnehan and her colleagues trudged back up the hill to their offices, the chatter of dolphins and sea lions fading behind them. But even indoors, it was impossible to escape the animals’ presence: There were photos of dolphins, dolphin cartoons and a plushy toy sea lion. Anatomical models of dolphins sat on numerous desks.

The laboratory, located just a short walk away, is typically bustling after the animals’ morning medical checks, as technicians process any recently collected blood, urine, fecal or other samples. Later, the samples are stored in a small, windowless room across the street, where supercold freezers contain a marine-mammal biobank that dates back decades. “We’ve got animals here in their 50s,” Dr. Xitco said. “All their health records are upstairs, and their tissue samples are across the street. It’s just an amazing resource.”

This biobank has made it possible for scientists to do longitudinal studies, charting, for instance, how dolphins’ blood chemistry changes as they age. And the large, well-trained animal population allowed the Navy to pioneer new medical techniques, such as portable ultrasounds for dolphins. Dr. Sam Ridgway, who was the program’s first veterinarian and continued to publish new research until his death last year, became known as the father of marine mammal medicine. To date, research on the Navy’s animals has yielded more than 1,200 scientific papers, conference presentations and book chapters, Navy officials said.

“No question they have been a leader in terms of developing our understanding of dolphin medicine,” said Randy Wells, who directs the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. (Dr. Wells frequently collaborates with the program’s researchers and has also received funding from the Navy.)

After their morning exams, the animals have training or enrichment sessions, often in the open ocean, where their athleticism is on clear display. The dolphins swim alongside boats, retrieve brightly colored balls, launch themselves into the air, slip under the water’s surface and reappear in a flash.

But they do slow with age, Dr. Jensen said. Their energy levels flag, their joints stiffen and they put on some extra pounds. Some develop heart disease, kidney stones or vision problems, which can require surgical intervention.

A few hours after examining Blue, Dr. Linnehan joined her colleagues at the Marine Mammal Surgical Center to talk through some upcoming cataract surgeries for sea lions. The team has become more proactive, said Dr. Jenny Meegan, a senior veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. The veterinarians now perform cataract surgery before the animals’ vision deteriorates significantly, she said, and are studying new diets that they hope will prevent dolphins from developing kidney stones.

“We want to give them the best health care, the best lives,” Dr. Meegan said. “What we can learn from them lives on by being able to help animals in the future.”

Four dolphins leap and curl in the air during an enrichment session on a rainy day, while three trainers kneel on the edge of a floating dock.
Four dolphins leap and curl in the air during an enrichment session on a rainy day, while three trainers kneel on the edge of a floating dock.

From left, feeding and play; the veterinary team discussed care plans and procedures; a dolphin caught a ball during an enrichment session.

Blue is the program’s paragon. Focused and seemingly tireless, she was once one of the Navy’s star mine hunters, earning a Navy Achievement Medal for her efforts, according to Dr. Xitco. But when she unexpectedly became pregnant in her 30s, she stopped searching for mines and began participating in acoustics research instead, which remained her primary role as she aged.

When Dr. Linnehan and her colleagues set out to create better ways to conduct cardiac assessments of dolphins, they tapped Blue to participate. Working with Blue and other Navy dolphins, the researchers developed a method for performing comprehensive cardiac exams on stationary dolphins while they were in the water. In the process, they discovered that Blue had a previously undetected arrhythmia.

It was not the only surprise. The team, partnering with other researchers, went on to perform heart exams in the wild, on dolphins in Sarasota Bay in Florida and Barataria Bay in Louisiana. “A lot of them had murmurs,” Dr. Linnehan said, “which nobody had described before.” The scientists also found that a variety of cardiac abnormalities were especially prevalent in the Barataria Bay dolphins, which had been heavily exposed to oil after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The Navy’s dolphins have frequently served as pioneers, allowing scientists to develop and test new techniques before they take them into the field, where “the opportunities to examine the animals are much more rare and much more precious,” said Dr. Wells, who collaborated on the studies.

Now, Dr. Linnehan is working with a biotech company to build an electrocardiogram harness that Blue can wear while freely swimming, diving or sleeping, a tool that might eventually help scientists study the hearts of wild dolphins under more natural conditions. “This would be a huge wealth of information that nobody’s gotten before,” Dr. Linnehan said.

Myriad other projects are underway, including the development of an acoustic monitoring system to detect the sounds of dolphins in distress, and a low-gravity surgical table, to better replicate the dolphins’ marine environment. (On land, the tug of gravity can compromise the animals’ heart and lung function.) Researchers recently devised a ventilator specifically for marine mammals, which have unique styles of breathing.

Surgical tools like these would be useful for the sick and injured animals that sometimes wash ashore with flipper injuries, fractured jaws or even gunshot wounds, said Dr. Cara Field, the medical director of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. And a better understanding of what is and isn’t normal for marine mammals throughout their long life spans could help in evaluating the wild animals that appear without a detailed health history, she added. “When they wash ashore with disease or injury, we only get them at one point in time when they’re sick,” Dr. Field said.

Some of the research might even benefit humans. “Older dolphins age a lot like older people,” said Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, a veterinary epidemiologist who was previously a researcher at the Navy program and the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

From left, a dolphin has an open ocean swimming session; a sea lion on the pier; a new acoustic monitoring system that researchers hope might help them detect dolphins in distress.

A dolphin is loaded onto a rubber dinghy ahead of an open-water enrichment session.
Trainers prepared one of the dolphins for an open-water enrichment session.

In a series of studies, Dr. Venn-Watson and her colleagues found that aging in dolphins was associated with some familiar conditions, including chronic inflammation, high cholesterol and anemia. And despite their similar diets and environments, different Navy dolphins seemed to age at different rates; fast-aging dolphins experienced especially pronounced declines in hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells.

The team also identified two compounds in dolphin diets — odd-chain saturated fatty acids known as C15:0 and C17:0 — that were associated with better health, including higher hemoglobin levels.

(Dr. Venn-Watson is now the co-founder and chief executive of Epitracker, a biotech company that has ongoing collaborations with the Navy, and Seraphina Therapuetics, which sells C15:0 supplements.)

The findings have caught the attention of experts in human medicine, including Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the University of California, San Diego, who started his own studies on the compounds. These fatty acids, which have shown promise in other early studies, are also being investigated elsewhere. But, Dr. Schwimmer said, “It was the dolphin work that put it on my radar.”

Other scientific teams have reported that dolphins can develop brain lesions that look similar to those in people with Alzheimer’s. Now, the Navy’s researchers are working to determine whether dolphins also experience similar cognitive symptoms. If they do, it might explain some marine mammal strandings, experts say, and could make dolphins a useful model for Alzheimer’s.

“It’s really exciting from my perspective as a general marine mammal scientist to see these animals coming into their own as important models, if you like, that allow us to learn not only for their benefit but also for the benefit of others,” said Ailsa Hall, an emeritus professor of marine biology at the University of St. Andrews.

The Navy also has a wealth of new data to mine, including the newly sequenced genomes of about 70 of the program’s dolphins, and it is partnering with Dr. Venn-Watson’s company, Epitracker, to look for genetic and metabolic predictors of health and disease. The priority is finding ways to improve the animals’ lives, Dr. Jensen said. But “if you can take it and have a spin off benefit for human health care, it’s a win-win,” he added.

Not all experts feel that way. The Navy has done some “really interesting, cutting-edge” research, Dr. Marino acknowledged. But some of its studies have also been “pretty unpalatable,” she said, pointing to one that made dolphins ingest seawater. Even a noninvasive imaging study requires an animal to leave the water and travel to a medical facility, she noted.

“These are all things that a dolphin is not interested in really doing and do not make their life worthwhile,” said Dr. Marino, who used to conduct research on captive dolphins before becoming uneasy with the practice.

In the foreground, a dolphin rises to the surface during an open-water enrichment session near Naval Base Point Loma. Human observers watch from a small boat in the background.
Open-water enrichment in waters off the Naval Base Point Loma.

Dr. Xitco said that he and his colleagues adhere to animal welfare and research regulations and make “every effort possible” to minimize negative effects on the animals. But sometimes the studies do require blood draws or milk samples or biopsies or brief exposure to noise. In those cases, he said, they have made the calculation that mild, temporary discomfort is outweighed by the value of the research. “We are the control population for the world of marine mammal medicine,” he said.

(Although it is beyond the scope of the marine mammal program, some experts also noted longstanding concerns about how the Navy’s broader suite of ocean activities, including its use of sonar, might affect wild marine mammals.)

Cutting-edge research is happening with wild dolphins, too, scientists said. But studies of captive animals are an important complement, said Austin Allen, a marine mammal scientist at Duke University. “There’s synergies between the two,” he said. “There’s just types of data that we can’t collect in the wild.”

Since the marine mammal program began, public affection for marine mammals has grown, experts said, and scientists have learned much more about how sophisticated dolphins are and what they need in order to thrive — in part because of the Navy’s research.

And when the sun does set on the marine mammal program, the world may never see another collection of animals quite like it. “There’s just no population like it in the world,” Dr. Venn-Watson said, “and it will not happen again.”

New York Times – January 31, 2023

Russian forces ratchet up pressure on a key eastern city.

Ukrainian military analysts near Bakhmut reviewing videos obtained by drone operators this month.
Ukrainian military analysts near Bakhmut reviewing videos obtained by drone operators this month.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters in an effort to break Ukraine’s resistance and targeting its supply lines in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.

Eleven months after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion, Bakhmut and surrounding areas have become an epicenter of fighting, their importance growing as both sides have added forces to the battle. It comes as Russia and Ukraine are each believed to be preparing for larger offensives as warmer spring temperatures arrive, and as Kyiv’s Western allies try to rush armored vehicles and other heavy weapons to the front.

Russia has intensified its effort to capture Bakhmut — which it sees as key to President Vladimir V. Putin’s objective of seizing the entire Donbas area in the east — after months of bombardment beginning in the summer yielded little progress. Civilians have streamed out of Bakhmut under Russian shelling, abandoning a city that before the war had a population of about 70,000, as the armies fought a series of battles in surrounding towns and villages that left heavy casualties on both sides.

Despite suffering setbacks elsewhere in eastern Ukraine and in the south, since last fall, Moscow’s troops edging toward Bakhmut from the east have gradually squeezed the city. This month, Russian forces took the salt mining town of Soledar, six miles to the northeast. They have also cut off a road running north toward the town of Siversk.

To the south, Ukrainian soldiers who recently left the front line said that a paved road that had been their main supply route into Bakhmut was now within range of Russian artillery and tanks, though still in Ukrainian hands. This leaves Ukraine relying on a road west to the town of Chasiv Yar, itself the target of frequent Russian attacks, and this road is harder to traverse.

In past battles in Donbas, Russia has aimed to encircle a city first, leaving Ukraine to decide whether to expend costly resources to defend it. Military experts said that while the outcome of the battle for Bakhmut remained unclear, and while Ukraine could still manage to send in reinforcements to stabilize their defense of the city, a similar pattern appeared to be at play in the current fighting.

Receiving food from a Ukrainian soldier on the eastern side of Bakhmut this month.
Receiving food from a Ukrainian soldier on the eastern side of Bakhmut this month.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

Much of last year’s fighting around Bakhmut was spearheaded by Wagner, a Russian private military group that the United States last week designated as a transnational criminal organization. But analysts say that regular Russian forces are increasingly prominent around Bakhmut and Vuhledar, a town about 60 miles southwest that has been virtually obliterated by shelling.

“The situation is very tough,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in his nightly address on Monday after meeting with military leaders that focused on the fighting in Donetsk, one of two regions that make up Donbas.

“Bakhmut, Vuhledar and other areas in the Donetsk region are under constant Russian attacks,” Mr. Zelensky said. “There are constant attempts to break through our defense.”

Military analysts say that Ukrainian forces have been using their positions in and around Vuhledar to launch attacks on the region’s main railway hub in the occupied town of Volnovakha, less than 10 miles away, trying to weaken Russia’s resupply efforts. The Ukrainian head of the regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on the Telegram social media app on Tuesday that there had been “intense fire” in Vuhledar and the surrounding area, without offering details.

Part of Russia’s strategy, Ukrainian officials say, has been to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses with waves of soldiers, with Mr. Putin’s call-up of 300,000 reservists in September providing more, if inexperienced, fighters for his effort. Ukraine has mostly relied on territorial defense and national guard forces to hold the main defensive line in Bakhmut, with better trained infantry units rushing in if those fighters are attacked or retreat.

New York Times – January 31, 2023

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy says Russia’s ‘big revenge’ has begun

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had warned for weeks that Moscow sought to step up assaults after months of virtual stalemate.

A resident walks past the bombed-out smouldering ruins of a school that was damaged by Russian shelling in the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhia region, Ukraine.
A resident walks past a school that was damaged by Russian shelling in the town of Orikhiv in the Zaporizhia region of Ukraine [Andriy Andriyenko/The Associated Press]

Russia has begun its “big revenge” for Ukraine’s resistance to its invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said, as Russian forces claimed a series of incremental gains in his country’s east.

Zelenskyy has been warning for weeks that Moscow aims to step up its assault on Ukraine after about two months of virtual stalemate along the front line that stretches across the south and east.

While there was no sign of a broader new offensive on Monday, the administrator of Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, said Russian troops had secured a foothold in Vuhledar, a coal mining town whose ruins have been a Ukrainian bastion since the outset of the war.

Pushilin’s adviser, Yan Gagin, said fighters from Russian mercenary force Wagner had taken partial control of a supply road leading to Bakhmut, a city that has been the focus of a Russian offensive for months.

A day earlier, the head of Wagner said his fighters had secured Blahodatne, a village just north of Bakhmut.

Kyiv said it had repelled assaults on Blahodatne and Vuhledar. The Reuters news agency could not independently verify the situations there, but the locations of the reported fighting indicated clear, though gradual, Russian gains.

Zelenskyy said Russian attacks in the east were relentless despite heavy casualties on the Russian side, casting them as payback for Ukraine’s success in pushing Russian forces back from the capital, northeast and south earlier in the conflict.

“I think that Russia really wants its big revenge. I think they have [already] started it,” Zelenskyy said.

“Every day they either bring in more of their regular troops, or we see an increase in the number of Wagnerites,” he told reporters in Ukraine’s southern port city of Odesa.


Vuhledar sits south of Bakhmut, near where the eastern front line protects Russian-controlled rail lines supplying Moscow’s forces in southern Ukraine. Mykola Salamakha, a Ukrainian colonel and military analyst, told Ukrainian Radio NV that Moscow’s assault there was coming at a huge cost.

“The town is on an upland and an extremely strong defensive hub has been created there,” he said. “This is a repetition of the situation in Bakhmut — one wave of Russian troops after another crushed by the Ukrainian armed forces.”

Weapons deliveries months away

In recent weeks, Western countries have pledged hundreds of modern tanks and armoured vehicles to equip Ukrainian forces for an offensive to recapture territory later in 2023.

But the delivery of those weapons is months away, leaving Kyiv to fight on through the winter in what both sides have described as a meat grinder of relentless attritional warfare.

Moscow’s Wagner mercenary force has sent thousands of convicts recruited from Russian prisons into battle around Bakhmut, buying time for Russia’s regular military to reconstitute units with hundreds of thousands of reservists.

Zelenskyy is urging the West to hasten delivery of its promised weapons so Ukraine can go on the offensive.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Western countries supplying arms leads “to NATO countries more and more becoming directly involved in the conflict — but it doesn’t have the potential to change the course of events and will not do so”.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War think tank said “the West’s failure to provide the necessary materiel” last year was the main reason Kyiv’s advances had halted since November.

That had allowed Russia to apply pressure at Bakhmut and fortify the front against a future Ukrainian counterattack, its researchers said in a report, though they said Ukraine could still recapture territory once the promised weapons arrive.

Zelenskyy met Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on Monday in Mykolaiv, a rare visit by a foreign leader close to the front. The city, where Russia’s advance in the south was halted, had been under relentless bombardment until Ukraine pushed the front line back in November.

Zelenskyy’s office released footage of the president greeting Frederiksen with a handshake on a snowy street before entering a hospital where they met wounded soldiers.

Iran raid

While Kyiv has secured weapons from the West, Moscow has turned to allies, including Iran, which Kyiv and the West say has provided Russia with hundreds of long-range so-called “suicide drones” used to attack Ukrainian cities.

Over the weekend, an Iranian military factory was hit by a drone attack that a US official said appeared to have been carried out by Israel. Israel has not commented.

Kyiv implied that the attack on Iran was payback for Tehran’s military support for Russia: “Explosive night in Iran,” senior Zelenskyy aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted. “Did warn you.”

Iran summoned the charge d’affaires at Ukraine’s embassy over Podolyak’s remarks. Russia said the raid on Iran “could have unpredictable consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East”.

Unlike many Western countries, Israel has stopped short of openly arming Kyiv, but it is seen as alarmed by Russia’s reliance on Iranian drone technology it views as a regional security threat.

Ukraine, which has received large supplies of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) from its partners, said it planned to spend nearly $550m on drones this year, with 16 supply deals signed with Ukrainian manufacturers.

France, meanwhile, said it had agreed with Australia to cooperate to manufacture “several thousand” shells for Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion, which it launched on February 24 last year claiming it was necessary to protect itself from its neighbour’s ties with the West, has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.


Al Jazeera – January 30, 2023