Kyiv aims to use more Ukrainian drones; Trump, Biden clash on NATO


Ukraine changed its military leadership and announced a change of tactics in the past week, as a vote in the US Senate brought renewed hope of US aid for the embattled country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appointed ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskii as commander-in-chief of the armed forces on February 8. Zelenskyy reportedly asked the outgoing Valery Zaluzhny to “continue to be part of the team”, without specifying what that meant.

“We stood against a vile and powerful enemy. Endured together,” wrote Zaluzhny, an immensely popular general who stopped Russia’s invasion in February 2022 and ordered a counterattack in August that year, which claimed more than 1,500sq km (580sq miles)

Since then, Ukrainian forces have become bogged down in positional warfare. A counteroffensive last summer failed to achieve its goal of cutting the Russian front in two.

“The tasks of 2022 are different from the tasks of 2024,” Zaluzhny wrote.

In his first meeting with Rustem Umyerov, the defence minister, the following day Syrskii said drones and electronic warfare would play a greater role – something Zaluzhny had also said shortly before his dismissal.

Ukraine has set a goal of building a million small drones – essentially flying bombs – this year.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyal said the government’s primary goal was to develop high-tech defence industries during a budget meeting on Tuesday, with $1bn going to drones alone.

“We are talking about the developments of the Defence Tech cluster, scaling up the production of drones of various categories, electronic warfare,” Shmyal said.

Mykhailo Fedorov, minister for digital transformation, told Reuters the number and range of Ukraine’s domestically built drones were dramatically increasing.

“In December alone, drone deliveries were 50 times higher than in the entire 2022,” he said.

Ukraine’s defence ministry launched a web form for Ukrainians to become involved in a community of innovators to “help solve the most difficult challenges at the front”, and is seeking to build a 10:1 technological advantage over Russia.

This strategy has been showing results.

Two long-range drones struck Russian oil refineries in Ilsky and Afipsky in Krasnodar Krai on Friday. Geolocated footage showed smoke rising from the refineries.

Ukrainian naval drones sank the Russian Landing ship Caesar Kunikov off the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula on Wednesday. Ukrainian military intelligence’s Group 13 used Magura-V surface drones in the attack.

It was the fifth Russian landing ship in the Black Sea Ukraine sank or disabled. Nocturnal video shot by the drones showed the Caesar Kunikov being struck and capsizing to port.

A week earlier, Ukraine’s military intelligence used six Magura drones to sink the Ivanovets, a missile corvette.

Bringing greater efficiency to logistics, to keep front lines better supplied, and restoring Ukraine’s units with rest, new troops and training, was also a priority, Syrskii said.

Ukraine has almost a million troops under arms.

Syrskii also sought to overcome his image as “the butcher”, earned when he ordered a stout defence of the eastern town of Bakhmut that was costly in lives.

“Of course, we need to improve tactics. For us, the main task and value is the life of our soldier,” he told Germany’s ZDF television. “I would rather leave, perhaps some position, but I will not allow the death of the entire personnel,” Syrksyii said.

He emphasised self-reliance, saying “We, first of all, have to rely on our own strength. Not only on partners.”

NATO weakened, Europe abandoned?

As these words aired, the US Senate passed a bipartisan national security bill approving $60.6bn in financial and military aid to Ukraine by a vote of 70 to 29. The bill also contained $35bn in aid for Israel and Taiwan.

The bill must also pass the House of Representatives, but House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican ally of presidential hopeful Donald Trump, has said he will not consider aid to Ukraine, even though 84 percent of the appropriations would go to US defence manufacturers.

“There is no question that if the Senate bill was put on the floor in the House of Representatives, it would pass,” US President Joe Biden said. “So, I call on the speaker to let the full House speak its mind and not allow a minority of the most extreme voices in the House to block this bill even from being voted on.”

Trump has campaigned on cutting US defence costs in Europe, including the cost of defending NATO allies who, he believes, should spend more on defence.

“One of the presidents of a big [NATO] country stood up, said, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?,” he told students at Coastal Carolina University on Saturday. “No, I will not protect you, in fact, I would encourage [the Russians] to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay,” he said to cheers.

Biden responded, saying, Trump “gave an invitation” to Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade the US’s NATO allies.

“When he looks at NATO, he doesn’t see the alliance that protects America and the world. He sees a protection racket,” said the president.

Trump peppered his speech with inaccuracies. He put the bill of US aid to Ukraine thus far at $200bn, and Europe’s contribution at $25bn.

In fact, the US has contributed $113bn in financial and military aid, and Europe 88.3 billion euros ($95bn), but Europe has approved a further 39.5 billion euros ($42.5bn) in financial and military aid for this year.

Trump’s influence over House Republicans means there are no US appropriations for Ukraine so far this year.

The Financial Times reported that Ukraine is already facing artillery shortages. The New York Times reported that Ukraine’s air defence missiles will run out by March unless replenished.

Russian forces, meanwhile, continued to rage against Ukrainian defenders in the east, launching as many as 100 assaults a day.

Ukraine’s armed forces estimated they were killing or wounding about 1,000 enemy troops across the front each day – a figure that could not be verified.

Tavria group commander Brig-Gen Oleksandr Tarnavskyi said Russia’s aim was to capture Avdiivka.

“The enemy is increasingly adding armoured groups to assault infantry groups,” he said.

Syrskii made his first trip as commander-in-chief to the eastern front, accompanied by Umyerov. He said troops faced “extremely difficult conditions”.

Umerov said drones and electronic warfare reinforcements were on their way.

“Avdiivka, Kupiansk, Lyman are extremely important areas on which all our attention is concentrated,” said Umerov.__Al Jazeera