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Archive for: February 2023 - DIGEST UKRAINE

Monthly Archives: February 2023

With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its second year, there is renewed attention on the eastern salt-mining city of Bakhmut, the focus of a sustained Russian offensive in recent months. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the situation in Bakhmut is becoming more and more “complicated.” Bakhmut is just one of many areas in Russia’s sights as the war continues.

Along with the billions of dollars in military assistance that Western nations have given, Ukraine seeks fighter jets, but so far, the West has refused that request. The NATO military alliance has also voiced concern that Ukraine is using ammunition faster than it can be replenished.

Russia controls about 20% of Ukrainian territory, far short of the quick, countrywide takeover that had been predicted when Russia invaded its neighbor on February 24, 2022.

VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the main intelligence directorate at the Ukrainian defense ministry in Kyiv. Budanov spoke of what to expect in the coming months as Russia intensifies its military campaign in Ukraine. The interview has been edited for clarity.

VOA: You are the only person, in fact, as people close to the processes say, who at the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, even before the start of a full-scale invasion, emphasized the need to be ready for a major Russian offensive. Have you been heard then?

Kyrylo Budanov, military intelligence chief, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine: Since today is already the 25th [of February 2023] and Russia has not been able to fulfill any of its strategic tasks, we can see that, at least partly, I was heard. At that time, let’s say different people had different opinions; however, as the period of February 2022 approached … certain steps were taken and it was because of this that Russia was unable to implement its plan on the 24th.”

VOA: You said, “Because of it.” Because of what?

Budanov: As an example, I can give you that already on the 23rd [of February 2022], our aviation was dispersed. So, when the missile attacks began on the 24th [of February 2022], the losses in our combat aviation were almost minimal, almost zero. These are little-known steps, a lot of them were taken at the last moment, probably, but they were taken.

VOA: How else did Ukraine manage to survive, during the first, very difficult days of the full-scale invasion?

Budanov: Thanks to our people, heroism. What else can I add? Everyone saw … Russia is out there crying that this is their Great Patriotic War; in fact, it is not yet for them. But for us, it is actually a Great Patriotic War. Everyone, from teenagers to old men, at that time, everyone stood up for defense.


VOA: Ukraine and Russia have very different military power, of course, both in terms of manpower and military equipment. What does Ukraine need most today in order to make a breakthrough in this military process?

Budanov: I don’t think I will say anything new for you; it is the intensification of weapons supply. Intensification. “Armament is coming, but the pace and volume are not sufficient for a breakthrough.”

VOA: Is it about some special, specific equipment, additional equipment, or is it about what is already supplied?

Budanov: Mostly about what I think is already supplied. In addition, we need attack aircraft, which as of now have not yet arrived.

VOA: There are many calls for the provision of F-16s to Ukraine. Is F-16 a panacea? Are there different types of similar weapons that Ukraine needs?

Budanov: In my opinion, we need attack aircraft. F-16 and similar platforms are not attack aircraft. Assault aircraft, in the USA, are first of all, A10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. This is also army aviation, but these are attack helicopters of the AH-64 type and so on. These are aerial platforms designed for ground strikes.

VOA: Why, then, does the president of Ukraine and his team talk specifically about the F-16?

Budanov: As I already said, this is my exclusively subjective vision, let’s say so. Maybe someone sees a different concept.

VOA: There is a lot of talk about a major Russian offensive. There were predictions that there would be massive missile shelling on the 23rd, 24th [of February 2023]. We did not see it.

Budanov: Thank God, it hasn’t happened yet. But this, let’s face it, unfortunately, is quite an everyday matter for Ukraine now. The only irregularity in it is that each time, the time between missile strikes increases, and the number of missiles in the strikes decreases. Here is the only regularity.

VOA: And what is the reason for this trend?

Budanov: Reduction of missile stocks. There is no other reason. They are already, in fact, ranging almost at zero.

VOA: There is a lot of talk about China being able to supply weapons for [Russia].

Budanov: I do not share this opinion. As of now, I do not think that China will agree to the supply of weapons to Russia. I see no indication that such things are even being negotiated.

VOA: American officials are also talking about it…

Budanov: I am the head of intelligence and, excuse me, but I rely, not on the opinion, with all due respect, of individual people, but only on facts. I do not see such facts.

VOA: Where else can Russia get supplies to continue the war in Ukraine today?

Budanov: Well, let’s say, if you are interested in other countries, as I understand from your question, in fact, almost the only country that actually supplies more or less serious weapons is Iran. I won’t tell you anything new either. There was information that something was coming from North Korea, but we have no confirmation of that. And there is not a single case when we would record that here is some kind of weapon that came from North Korea, that it was used here. Maybe we just haven’t seen it yet or it goes to some other, let’s say, needs. Well, let’s say, other countries, Russia is just trying to buy anything, anywhere. Because their problems are significant. Serbia, which everyone in Russia hoped for, refused to supply weapons. There are certain efforts to buy through third countries. Large-scale withdrawal of weapons. Now they are trying with Myanmar, we will see what will come of it in time. But in fact, Russia is limited, let’s say, by Iran in terms of weapons. As of now.

VOA: From what you say, Russia is practically exhausting its military reserves. But it doesn’t look like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is going to stop in this war.

Budanov: I’m sorry, but what, according to you, should it be so that somehow it looks different?

VOA: I’m not here to express my opinion, I’m asking. How can Russia continue this war under these conditions?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way. Being in these conditions, Russia cannot afford, as of now, to admit that it will lose. This is, let’s say, a direct dependence of the stability of the regime on this factor. However, if you rephrase, reformulate your question: “Is Russia unanimous, let’s say, on the issue of continuing hostilities?” The answer will be no. Not unanimous. In terms of the top state leadership. Many have come to the understanding that, after all, something is wrong. Let’s put it this way.

VOA: So, there is a split in the Russian leadership now?

Budanov: Opinions are divided. This cannot be called a split. Opinions are divided. And there are not so many people who speak out, in the leadership, I emphasize, for the fact that there is a war until the end and so on. For the most part, those people who are in favor of it, let’s say, behind this desire, they have a banal fear of responsibility. Because there are a certain number of people who will not be able to say that somehow a decision was made there without us, it was not us. There are very few of them, by the way.

VOA: And those people who do not agree with this war, do they have an influence on the decision, do they have an influence on Putin?

Budanov: Everyone is waiting for a certain moment when, let’s say, the tower of the Kremlin, which advocates a unanimous war, figuratively speaking, leans against the wall and admits that it is not going well. It’s a dead end.

VOA: And then? What to expect?

Budanov: Then we will see how things will go on. If you want to lead to the idea that, well, then they will get along there. They will not get along. Nothing will happen without our decisive actions.

VOA: I have heard such thoughts among the political elite in the USA that they do not see how this war can end, and in particular, maybe it can be just some kind of long-term, deep, unstable truce. Do you see it?

Budanov: I do not believe in this. No. First of all, Ukraine will not agree to such conditions; this is the first reason why it is unrealistic. And secondly, it simply won’t happen. And Russia is not ready for long-term hostilities. I am telling you this as the head of the military intelligence service. They show in every possible way that they are ready for “a war for decades,” but in reality, their resources are quite limited. Both in time and in volume. And they know it very well.

VOA: So they are also in a hurry?

Budanov: Everyone will be in a hurry right now.

VOA: We have already talked many times about the fact that the next three months will be decisive.

Budanov: Not just decisive. They will be quite active. Well, very active. Which will determine the further course of events. It’s active combat if you’re leading to that. This is what’s going to happen. Efforts will be on both sides.

VOA: Are we talking today about the east, Donetsk, Luhansk region. Or we are talking about the South?

Budanov: Absolutely everywhere.

VOA: Are we talking about the north?

Budanov: North, do you mean Russia’s attempt to attack Kyiv? Let’s put it this way. We do not know of such plans and there are no signs of any real ones. It’s not that we don’t know them, they just don’t exist. Maybe when they get certain defeats, they will look for a quick solution, but it will be a disaster for them. Another one, similar to what happened back then [in February-March 2022].

VOA: From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, even before the full-scale invasion, very active cooperation with the intelligence services of the USA and Great Britain began.

Budanov: You are wrong; this cooperation has been going on for many years. It just burst into the mass media now, let’s put it this way. This cooperation has a long history.

VOA: How important is it for Ukraine today?

Budanov: With no exaggeration, you understand that we need everyone’s help now. These are common truths. This helps us. Certain technical capabilities of the U.S., which we do not have, they significantly add to our understanding. First of all, it concerns the military component. Such as, movement at a considerable depth and so on.

VOA: Do you have ongoing cooperation with senior intelligence management? If possible, how does this cooperation take place?

Budanov: What intelligence?

VOA: In particular, the USA.

Budanov: We have all communications.

VOA: Now, about Ukrainian defense capability. During this year, in fact, for the first time, Ukraine strengthened militarily very much, and was also able to go further in its technical equipment and developments. What progressive changes have taken place in the army and in intelligence in particular?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way, we have accelerated quite a lot, intensified the pace of reconnaissance of everything related to unmanned aircraft complexes. This area is developing very actively. This is, in principle, such a general global trend, and Ukraine, as, unfortunately, Russia, in this aspect did not become an exception. It should be mentioned, as an example, that the first thing Russia began to buy was drones. Drones were the first thing that they, and the most important thing, that in principle they try to get from all over the world.

VOA: Ukraine uses, and has an IT industry, very actively. Can today’s Ukraine really be of service in the same way, in particular to NATO countries, because there is talk that after the end of the war, Ukraine will be one of the most powerful military machines in Europe. Can you agree with this?

Budanov: Ukraine will never serve anyone. But becoming a reliable partner, well, it has already happened in fact.

VOA: How can Ukraine be useful as a partner today?

Budanov: Ukraine is now the guarantor of security, in fact, for the whole of Europe. And this is true without exaggeration. Let’s put it this way. All of Eastern Europe understands this absolutely clearly. There are different opinions further, but what concerns Eastern Europe, everyone agrees on this. And in fact, why is everyone trying so hard to help Ukrainians in every possible way? Because if it somehow happened that Ukraine would have fallen, they would be next. And I’m sorry, but the capabilities of these countries are in no way comparable to Ukraine. Everything would be much worse there.

VOA: It is clear that the countries of Eastern Europe understand very well that they are next, that is why they are very active, their leaders talk about it and lobby for the interests of Ukraine and their interests, first of all. Why do you think, especially in the countries of Western Europe, there is no such deep understanding of the danger that comes from Russia?

Budanov: I am sorry, but what is the danger for them other than this, purely hypothetical? Tell me. What could even be in theory?

If, this [aggression] went to the east of Europe, then they would understand that there is a problem, because it would come closer to them. Well, that already happened. After the end of the Second World War, the Warsaw bloc and the NATO bloc stood close to each other. Then everyone understood it. Then such a conditional buffer appeared. Everyone started saying that, well, in fact, you can trade and live normally with Russia. It’s some of their business there; it’s something of theirs, and we don’t get into that. Well, it was the same. Very recently.

VOA: So, Ukraine today, in fact, creates new trends in international politics to some extent?

Budanov: Thanks to the idiocy of the Russians, all their biggest geopolitical horror stories have become a reality. And Ukraine will become one of the most powerful states, and, let’s say, they have already encountered Western weapons. And we all disposed of, let’s say, jointly, all the remains of Soviet weapons from around the world. And they threw out the defense industrial complex of the Russian Federation for many years from the world arms trade. And, let’s say, yes, they limited the activity of their defense industrial complex. They disposed of, in fact, the entire able-bodied part of their army. This, again, sets back their military ambitions for many years. Because simply all specialists, the majority no longer exist.

VOA: If you’re talking about Russia, I see here are maps of what Russia could look like.

Budanov: This is not what it might look like. This is their future. Their very real future.

VOA: So, you see the division of Russia after this war?

Budanov: There are already problems in Russia and they will only increase. The sooner they leave Ukraine, the more chances, in theory, they will have to keep their territory within more or less similar borders. It will not be the same as it was, but more or less similar. Perhaps it will become a real federation, because in fact, if you look at their legislation, they are closer to a unitary state, although they are called a federation. It could turn into a confederation. And so on. As it was, there will be nothing to hold on to.

VOA: You recently visited the Vatican. You have been meeting with the pope. What was the purpose of this visit? Why is the pope himself important?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way. Since I hold several positions, and one of them is the head of the center for the exchange of prisoners of war, I have to, let’s say, try all the mechanisms that even hypothetically exist in the world. This was my main, let’s say, goal.

VOA: That the pope would help in the exchange process.

Budanov: Let’s say, try to connect the Holy See to this process as well.

VOA: And?

Budanov: Let’s put it this way, altogether the mechanisms gave the result we have.

VOA: How does this exchange process take place today, and how possible and effective is dialogue with Russia in this particular context, the return of prisoners of war?

Budanov: The situation is unique in all aspects. Because, maybe it was somewhere, but we have consulted with many foreign partners, how they do it. None of them conducted exchanges during hostilities. In principle, so far only we have succeeded in this. To say that everything is great is absolutely not the case, that would be a lie on my part. Because there are people and many of them in captivity. You can’t say that things are going great. You can’t say that it’s terrible either, well, I’m sorry, with all due respect and understanding of the delicacy of the issue. Because, again, these exchanges are going on and about 2,000 people have already been returned. This is quite a significant amount. Therefore, everything is in working order. Unfortunately, the Russian side often puts sticks in the wheels. But still, we find effective mechanisms that force them to take such steps [war prisoners exchange].

Budanov: We have returned about 2,000. You can understand, these will be significant numbers [the total number of those in captivity].

VOA: You say you are finding mechanisms that work. May I ask, perhaps which ones?

Budanov: We are a special service. I’m sorry, our forms and methods of work are… read the books, they haven’t changed in years.

VOA: Is it possible to publish the numbers of Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine?

Budanov: I tell you again, you should understand. Almost 2,000 were exchanged.

VOA: But are these numbers similar in the total amount? How many prisoners of war are there now on both sides?

Budanov: Unfortunately, they have more prisoners of war than we do. This is very easy to explain. First of all, they captured 90% of all prisoners of war in the first days. The first days, the first month… We do not take civilians as prisoners. There are a lot of women, unfortunately, and children, there are all kinds of elders, postmen, railway workers, mayors, and janitors. Everyone is there.

VOA: Are there any that Ukraine simply does not know — the number that is not recorded?

Budanov: Most likely, there are some, but believe me, 99%, we know who they are.

VOA: Recently, there has been a lot of information about the fact that (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy announced Russia’s desire to overthrow the leadership of Moldova. It was very well publicized, there was a lot of talk about it, and Moldova changed its government almost immediately after that. What risks do you see from that side?

Budanov: When you mentioned the change of government, you have to look at the person who came. (Prime Minister) Dorin Recean. He is quite a professional person and he is a military bloc, a power bloc; it is more correct to say so. Therefore, it is clear that the situation is not the easiest for Moldova. By the way, Transnistria (PMR ) plays not the first role here. This is precisely the issue of the Russian Federation’s attempt to overthrow the constitutional authority. Well, as you can see, they haven’t succeeded yet. A number of measures have been applied, which, for sure, will give results, and all these plans will once again fail. They have already partially experienced this failure in its infancy.

VOA: How important was it for you to convey this information to the Moldovan leadership? How important do you see the risks on that part?

Budanov: I’m telling you, the set of measures that have been taken and are being taken make Russia’s efforts impossible.

VOA: Another question about nuclear weapons. Many people talk about this and say that if Ukraine approaches the borders of Crimea and really wants to take Crimea, then the last step will be, for Putin to use nuclear weapons?

Budanov: And how many times has it happened already? Red line — Russia will use nuclear weapons, Russia is already using it, almost. The first time it happened at the end of spring, and then once every month-and-a-half. The apogee was from late summer to mid-autumn. At that point it was that they will launch a nuclear strike right there tomorrow. Did they? No, they did not. Can they do it? Hypothetically, everything in life is possible. In reality? No, it’s not possible. Because the Russian Federation is a state, let’s say, a soap bubble.

I mean in a sense that they inflate everything. There are not such idiots sitting there as they want to appear to the world. They clearly understand the first thing: nuclear weapons are not [offensive] weapons. It is a means of strategic deterrence. Secondly: the use of a nuclear deterrent by anyone in the world will lead to fatal consequences for whomever does it. No matter who it is.

VOA: Even if we are talking about tactical nuclear weapons?

Budanov: What’s the difference? This is the answer.

VOA: What is the deterrent to them not to do it?

Budanov: Again, if you and I will get into details of this issue, we will spend hours. With all the power of the Soviet Union, and it is incomparable with the Russian Federation today, absolutely incomparable. Several times everything was on the edge. Well, have they used it? No. And can it be used? No it cannot. This is not a weapon, I tell you again, it is officially a means of strategic deterrence.

VOA: Final question. How do you see the end of this war?

Budanov: The most difficult question. The end of the war in the first stage will be the return to the administrative borders of 1991. This is probably the correct answer. This will cause a change in the entire architecture and security, and the economy, and everything else in the entire region. That’s why I say: At the first stage, this is access to the administrative borders.

Next, we need to look at the security zone around Ukraine, at least from the Russian side. To a depth of 100 kilometers or more. And so on.

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The United States and its allies are moving to treat Iran as a global threat, warning that its growing alliance with Russia — and cooperation in the war on Ukraine — mean Tehran’s destabilizing activities will pose a greater danger than ever before.

“We are now at a point where Iranian threats are no longer specific to the Middle East, but a global challenge,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul told reporters during a media call Tuesday.

Stroul pointed to the enhanced military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow and specifically to Iran’s provision of one-way drones to the Russian military, calling for “a global coalition to push back on the malign cooperation between Iran and Russia.”

“It is reasonable to expect that the tactics, techniques and procedures that the Iranians are learning and perfecting in Ukraine will one day come back to our partners in the Middle East, which is why we are increasing cooperation now, intelligence sharing, understanding these networks and increasing our collective defensive capabilities so that we are prepared to counter these threats in the region,” she said.

Stroul is the latest high ranking U.S. official to sound the alarm about Iran’s alliance with Russia.

This past Sunday, CIA Director William Burns called the growing relationship “disturbing.”

“It’s moving at a pretty fast clip in a very dangerous direction right now,” Burns said during an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We know that the Iranians have already provided hundreds or armed drones to the Russians. … We know that they’ve provided ammunition for artillery and for tanks, as well,” he said, adding there are signs Moscow could give Iran Russian-made fighter jets and even help Tehran with its ballistic missile program.

Iran denies it has provided drones to Russia.

The description of Iran as a “global challenge” appears to be a departure from language used by the U.S. intelligence community just last year.

“Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its annual Worldwide Threats Assessment report.

“The Iranian regime sees itself as locked in an existential struggle with the United States and its regional allies, while it pursues its longstanding ambitions for regional leadership,” the report noted, adding Iran’s leadership would seek to “entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states.”

The State Department’s just-released report, Country Reports on Terrorism 2021, called Iran “the leading state sponsor of terrorism, facilitating a wide range of terrorist and other illicit activities around the world.”

The report further warns that Tehran maintains “a near-global procurement network,” to acquire cutting-edge technology for its military and its various proxies, like Hezbollah.

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Nikos Christodoulides was sworn in as Cyprus’s president on Tuesday, promising to make finding a solution to the “Cyprus problem” his top priority after winning an election runoff on Feb. 12.

Christodoulides, 49, inherits a deadlock in reunification talks on the ethnically split island, labor disputes over high inflation, and what he called challenges of “exceptionally complex” irregular migration.

Christodoulides took an investiture oath in parliament. Cyprus has an executive system of government, with power invested in the presidency and its council of ministers.

Backed by centrist and right-wing parties, Christodoulides, a foreign minister until early 2022, won 52% of the vote over his main rival, leftist-backed Andreas Mavroyiannis.

“A solution to the Cyprus problem is my top priority,” he said. He met with Ersin Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot leader, last week.

Christodoulides has already sailed into his first controversy by falling short on a pre-election pledge of women making up 50% of his cabinet and of avoiding appointments of individuals who served in past governments.

“He raised the bar, but fell short,” the opposition leftist AKEL said in a statement.

Of 25 appointments announced on Monday, 14 were male and 11 female, though there were fewer females in key posts.

Two of his ministers have served in previous administrations – Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou, who served as health minister under the government of former President Nicos Anastasiades, and Finance Minister Makis Keravnos, who served in the same post 20 years ago.

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The death toll from the wooden boat carrying hundreds of migrants that shipwrecked Sunday off the Italian coast has risen to at least 64.

At least one body was pulled out of the sea Monday, according to news outlets.

Survivors estimate that between 150 to 200 people were onboard the vessel that began its journey a few days ago from Turkey. Eighty people survived the tragedy, while officials fear the death toll may reach more than 100. Many of the migrants were from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reuters news agency reports that three men, a Turkish national and two Pakistani nationals, have been arrested by Italian authorities on suspected trafficking charges.

Huge piles of debris from the vessel began washing up on the beach Monday near the town of Steccato di Cutro, including wood, gas tanks, food containers and children’s toys.

More than 105,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea during 2022, with most coming from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Italy has asked other European Union countries to step up and take in some of the migrants, many of whom are not looking to stay in Italy, but instead are focused on traveling elsewhere in Europe to find work and/or reunite with family members.

The government of right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has approved legislation that has placed strict restrictions on humanitarian groups’ ability to deploy boats to assist with rescues.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Working from bomb shelters has become the norm for Ukrainians like Roman Osadchuk.

“At the beginning, there were a lot of air raids. Nowadays, there are maybe two a week,” said Osadchuk. “I mean, I was in the shelter today,” he said offhandedly when he spoke with VOA from Kyiv.

Most times Osadchuk still has a “solid internet connection” and sometimes he has Wi-Fi in the shelter so he can still work, “just underground.”

That work is part of the digital front of the war in Ukraine. Based in Ukraine’s capital, Osadchuk monitors Russian disinformation for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

His work is part of a broader international effort from open-source researchers, analysts and journalists to study Russian disinformation, debunk false claims, and document violations.

Russia has deployed propaganda about Ukraine for years. And with the full invasion in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed the war was necessary to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and prevent genocide.

Some of those false narratives and tactics have changed in the past 12 months, but the omnipresence of Russian propaganda has remained constant, analysts said.

“This is the most digital conflict to ever occur,” and when it comes to the digital front, Russia has been on the back foot, said Nina Jankowicz, vice president in the U.S. for London’s independent nonprofit, the Center for Information Resilience.

“I think they expected, just like in the kinetic side of the war, to be really unmatched in the digital side of the war, and that absolutely has not been the case,” Jankowicz told VOA.

Open-source researchers have been working to “throw cold water on the lies coming out of Russia,” Jankowicz said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”

The Center for Information Resilience launched the Eyes on Russia Project in early 2022, as Russian troops amassed along the Ukraine border.

When troops crossed into Ukraine, the project worked to verify and geolocate incidents and attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Like detectives, researchers use everything from satellite imagery and shadows to street signs and license plates to help verify events, she said.

Those skills have helped the team to expose lies and debunk “everything from ‘Ukraine is full of neo-Nazis,’ to ‘Ukraine is attacking its own citizens,’” Jankowicz said.

The propaganda is mostly shared on social media, messaging platforms like Telegram, news sites and TV.

Initially the focus of propaganda was to justify the invasion, according to Ruslan Deynychenko, of the Ukrainian fact checking site StopFake.org and a journalist who previously contributed to VOA’s Ukrainian Service.

They created stories about de-Nazification and liberation, nuclear programs and secret laboratories where Ukrainians and Americans supposedly developed “combat mosquitoes” and other bioweapons, said Deynychenko. But about six months after the invasion, Deynychenko noticed that the rhetoric on Russian networks changed.

“They openly admit that they are fighting Ukraine and Ukrainians, and it’s not that they’re liberating Ukrainians from a neo-Nazi regime,” Deynychenko told VOA from Kyiv. “They basically [try to] justify Russian efforts to kill Ukrainians, to bomb Ukrainian cities.”

Russia’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

The intensity of the work is a challenge, the researchers said.

“It became more difficult to figure out which case is more relevant,” said Nika Aleksejeva, who researches Russian disinformation about Ukraine at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

What would have been noteworthy before the war isn’t as important today, she said. “The baseline has moved.”

Her colleague Osadchuk agreed. “It’s kind of toxic when you eat a lot of it,” Osadchuk said about the volume of disinformation he has analyzed over the past year.

For Toma Istomina, deputy chief editor at the English-language online newspaper, The Kyiv Independent, reporting accurately on the war is one of the best ways to combat disinformation.

“Information is probably as big of a tool in this war as the traditional weapons used on the ground,” Istomina told VOA from Vinnytsia, a city southwest of Kyiv.

“Information has really been weaponized by Russia for a while against Ukraine,” she added, but “Ukraine did a very good job during this war debunking Russia’s bullshit.”

The Kyiv Independent makes a point to not report on every lie that Russia tells, Istomina said, in part because there are just so many. But another reason is that reporting too much on Russian propaganda could risk legitimizing it.

Putin likely considers the Russian audience — inside the country and the diaspora — to be the most important target for disinformation, but Ukrainians are also in his sights, according to Osadchuk. The Global South has also become an increasingly important target, he said.

It’s always challenging to measure how effective disinformation is at influencing public opinion, Aleksejeva said, but propaganda probably helps the Russian domestic audience “cope with such an uncomfortable reality, basically escape it somehow.”

As for the West, she said, “it was much harder to win this battle from the very beginning.”

The fight against propaganda has extra relevance for Ukrainian researchers.

Exposing disinformation and documenting violations is a way for them to contribute to the war effort.

“Every Ukrainian on February 24 [2022] felt that there is a need to resist in some way, where you have some skills,” Osadchuk said.

For StopFake’s Deynychenko, he sees his work as a way to gather evidence that could be used to prosecute people “who used media as a powerful weapon” in the war. “We believe that those people should be held responsible,” he said.

And at The Kyiv Independent, Istomina said the mentality is that “when we work, we’re not victims — we’re fighters.”

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Europe’s existing telecom networks aren’t up to the job of handling surging amounts of internet data traffic, a top European Union official said Monday, as he defended a consultation on whether Big Tech companies should help pay for upgrades.

The telecom industry needs to reconsider its business models as it undergoes a “radical shift” fueled by a new wave of innovation such as immersive, data-hungry technologies like the metaverse, Thierry Breton, the European Commission’s official in charge of digital policy, said at a major industry expo in Barcelona called MWC, or Mobile World Congress.

Breton’s remarks came days after he announced a consultation on whether digital giants should help contribute to the billions needed to build the 27-nation bloc’s future communications infrastructure, including next-generation 5G wireless and fiber-optic cable connections, to keep up with surging demand for digital data.

“Yes, of course, we will need to find a financing model for the huge investments needed,” Breton said in a copy of a keynote speech at the MWC conference.

Telecommunications companies complain they have had to foot the substantial costs of building and operating network infrastructure only for big digital streaming platforms like Netflix and Facebook to benefit from the surging consumer demand for online services.

“The consultation has been described by many as the battle over fair share between Big Telco and Big Tech,” Breton said. “A binary choice between those who provide networks today and those who feed them with the traffic. That is not how I see things.”

Big tech companies say consumers could suffer because they’d end up paying twice, with extra fees for their online subscriptions.

Breton denied that the consultation was an attack on Big Tech or that he was siding with telecom companies.

“I’m proposing a new approach,” he later told reporters. Topics up for discussion include how much investment is needed and whether regulations need to be changed, he said.

“We will have zero taboo,” Breton said, referring to the conference’s approach that no topic is off limits. “Do we need to adapt it? Do we need to discuss who should pay for what? This is exactly what is the consultation today.”

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Днями повідомлялося про затримання великих груп підлітків з так званої «ПВК Редан» у низці російських міст. Вони також збиралися для масових бійок

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As Antony Blinken makes his first visit to Central Asia as U.S. secretary of state this week, the Biden administration says it is focused on supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the region’s five former Soviet republics, which maintain strong political, economic and socio-cultural ties with Russia.

Blinken travels to Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy with the highest level of U.S. investment, as well as Uzbekistan, the most populous country.

The trip is an opportunity to reach out and try to improve alliances as Washington looks to further isolate Russia for invading Ukraine. But democracy supporters are urging the U.S. to promote systemic reforms, arguing that accountability, openness and the rule of law are prerequisites for ensuring the region’s long-term security and prosperity.

Strategic move

Richard Hoagland, a former ambassador to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, sees Blinken’s trip “as a welcome reminder to the Central Asian leaders that U.S. foreign policy is paying attention while they grapple with their traditionally dominant partner, Russia, because of [President Vladimir] Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine.”

“Washington has no desire to supplant Moscow in Central Asia,” Hoagland told VOA. “But it does want to remind the leaders of the region that the United States has not forgotten their multi-vector foreign policy and continues to be a reliable partner.”

Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, a senior policy official traveling with Blinken to the region this week, added that Russia’s war in Ukraine has put enormous pressure on these countries.

“We see high food and fuel prices, high unemployment, difficulty in exporting their goods, slow post-COVID recovery, and a large influx of migrants from Russia. We are working to support people in the region,” Lu told reporters in a briefing last week.

There has been no official mention of neighboring Afghanistan ahead of this trip, which has long been a priority in U.S. engagement with the region. On February 28, Blinken will participate in C5+1, a diplomatic dialogue launched in 2015 among five Central Asian countries and Washington to boost regional cooperation. Bilateral talks are also planned in Kazakhstan, including with the foreign ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

On Tuesday, in Astana with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and on Wednesday in Tashkent with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Blinken is to focus on security issues and economic cooperation, while also urging leaders to speed up promised reforms.

“Advancing human rights in Central Asia has always been a top priority of the United States. We are committed to supporting the protection of vulnerable populations in Central Asia. That includes refugees, asylum-seekers, LGBTQI+ persons, women, and girls,” Lu said.

In both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, despite progress in recent years, the State Department’s human rights reports as well as international watchdogs point to widespread violations of basic freedoms, specifically by law enforcement and other authorities.

“It makes sense for human rights issues to feature strongly in Secretary Blinken’s talks in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan,” said Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia director.

“Human rights improvements would mean more stability, which is certainly lacking in the region. He should, for instance, press for effective independent investigations into what happened during the protests in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan and in the January events in Kazakhstan. Without real respect for human rights, these governments won’t be reliable partners for the U.S.,” Williamson said.

US assistance

With Ukraine high on Blinken’s agenda, Lu told reporters, “We are not asking for countries to choose between us and Russia, or us and China.” He argued that Astana and Tashkent value America’s unique political and economic input which “are different from the engagement of Moscow and Beijing.”

While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have avoided explicit condemnation of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, they have refused to recognize the independence of Russia-backed separatist regions in Ukraine, nor their annexation late last year by Putin.

“We’ve committed $41.5 million in assistance this year to Central Asia to support food security and economies that we see are struggling. This money will help them explore new export routes, retrain their workforce, reduce unemployment, and spur private sector growth,” said Lu.

The State Department is helping Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan avoid secondary sanctions, as the West increases economic and financial restrictions against Russia.

“We have issued a license so that the Caspian Pipeline Consortium is able to transfer Kazakh oil to markets. It’s a pipeline that goes through Russia,” Lu said. “The purpose of these sanctions is to target entities in Russia that are fueling Putin’s war in Ukraine, it’s not to harm the interests of Central Asian republics or their peoples or their economies. Here’s an illustration of how we have made sure the world knows it’s fine to use Kazakh oil that comes out of this pipeline.”

Three banks have been transformed from Russian subsidiaries to wholly locally owned, added Lu, through licenses allowing for the transfer of assets into Kazakh hands.

It boils down to freedom

Closely watching Blinken’s visit, Uzbek and Kazakh civil society activists are asking the U.S. to push for systemic reforms without which, they argue, these republics will not be able to overcome geopolitical challenges, including preserving their independence.

“We have seen some positive action by the Uzbek government, but it has a long way to go in terms of allowing political freedoms and space for pluralism,” Abdurahmon Tashanov, who heads the Ezgulik Human Rights Society, told VOA from Tashkent. “The state must ease the registration of nongovernmental organizations and political parties. The authorities don’t seem to want to take these steps.”

Last week, President Mirziyoyev voiced support of journalists and bloggers, “confessing” that many around him want to suppress media freedom. He claims he is open to constructive criticism.

“Freedom of expression and media are basic rights to be enjoyed by everyone, not because the president backs them or wants to allow them,” Tashanov said.

As a witness to the repressions under the previous Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, Tashanov sees two clear paths for his country: true democratic reforms or further authoritarianism.

American officials say Washington will remain on the side of reforms, and not just in Uzbekistan, advancing “our shared goal of a prosperous, secure and democratic region.”

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Russia’s war of aggression took center stage at the opening of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s five-and-a-half-week session in Geneva.

As he kicked off this historically long and politically charged conference, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned what he called the carnage unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he said, “has triggered the most massive violations of human rights we are living today.”

“It has unleashed widespread death, destruction, and displacements,” he told those gathered in Geneva. “Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have caused many casualties and terrible sufferings.”

Guterres presented a gloomy assessment of the state of human rights, noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out the rights to life, liberty, security and many other rights and freedoms, was “under assault from all sides.”

He warned the erosion of human rights around the world has stalled and, in some cases, reversed progress in human development. He added that extreme poverty and hunger are rising around the world for the first time in decades.

“A record one-hundred million people have been forced to flee by violence, conflict and human rights violations,” said Guterres. “Just yesterday, yet another horrific shipwreck in the Mediterranean claimed the lives of scores of people seeking a better future for themselves and their children.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said much of the progress made over decades was being reined back and even reversed.

“The oppression of the past can return,” he said, along with “the old authoritarianism, with its brutal limits on freedoms writ large, and the suffocating straitjacket of patriarchy.”

The high commissioner added: “The old destructive wars of aggression from a bygone era with worldwide consequences, as we have witnessed again in Europe with the senseless Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Rights challenges in Africa

This week, some 150 heads of state, foreign ministers, and other dignitaries will present their priorities and the challenges they’re facing.

Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi headed a list of 46 dignitaries scheduled to speak during Monday’s opening day meeting.

He told the council that the main challenge facing his country was the cycle of violence and looting of natural resources by terrorists and armed groups since 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide.

He said some 150 groups, including the M-23 rebels, mainly operate in the provinces of Ituri, Maniema, North Kivu, and Tanganyika.

“It is no secret to anyone that they are supported, armed by some states of the region, such as Rwanda and by foreign financial sectors,” he said. “For 30 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the theater of the most abominable human atrocities.”

Rwanda has denied accusations that it has supported the M23 group in eastern DRC. However, United Nations observers and human rights groups have said there is evidence of Rwandan backing for the M23.

Tshisekedi said he is in consultation with 53 armed groups within the context of the Nairobi Peace Process. He said the consultations, which aim to re-integrate the militias into national life, do not include the M23 rebels or the group known as CODECO, a cooperative of militants drawn mainly from the Lendu farming community, which has been accused perpetrating violence against civilians.

Over the course of the coming weeks, the 47-member Council will review the human rights situations in Afghanistan, China, Myanmar, Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Israel and the Palestinian territories, among others.

It also will address thematic issues, such as torture, violence against children, discrimination, and freedom of religion.

Moscow is set to be represented at the meetings for the first time since Russia suspended its council membership last year.

Some information is from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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A 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit southeastern Turkey on Monday, killing one person, injuring at least 110, and causing a number of already-damaged buildings to collapse.

The new tremor came three weeks after a 7.8 magnitude shook Turkey and Syria and killed more than 50,000 people.

Turkish authorities said that rescue teams were immediately deployed Monday to rescue people from the rubble. A father and daughter who were trapped beneath the ruins of a four-story building they had entered in the town of Yesilyurt to retrieve their belongings after the earlier quake were saved.

Yesilyurt, in Malatya province, was the center of Monday’s quake.

Yunus Sezer, the head of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), said that search and rescue teams had been deployed at five buildings.

The region has had four earthquakes in the past three weeks, as well as more than 10,000 aftershocks, according to AFAD’s general director of earthquake and risk reduction, Orhan Tatar.

The earthquakes are expected to have an impact on Turkey’s upcoming elections. Current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is running for another term and faces what is expected to be a tough election in June.

Critics accuse the government of being too slow to respond to the initial quake emergency and opposition parties have said Erdogan’s government is responsible for the extent of the disaster, due to its failure to enforce building regulations.

At a news conference Monday, Erdogan acknowledged his government’s response was deemed by many to be insufficient.

“In the first days, we were not able to conduct work as efficiently as we wanted to in [the hard-hit town of] Adiyaman, for reasons such as the destructive impact of the tremors, adverse weather and challenges due to the damaged infrastructure,” Erdogan said.

The president said construction to rebuild damaged 309,000 homes would start soon. He said that in March and April, construction will also start on 234,000 new homes, while infrastructure, medical centers, and parks will also be built.

During the huge Feb. 6 earthquake, 173,000 buildings in Turkey collapsed or were severely damaged, making it the worst disaster in the country’s modern history

After this latest tremor, AFAD issued a warning on Twitter telling people not to enter or stand near damaged buildings in the earthquake zone.

Some information for this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.


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