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Australia Urged to Boost Military Assistance to Ukraine

Ukraine is urging Australia to increase its military aid ahead of a visit to Europe next week by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and Defense Minister Richard Marles.

Australia, the largest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine’s war effort, has supplied missiles and Bushmaster armored personnel carriers. They have a special ‘V’-shaped floor designed to spread the impact of an explosion more effectively than a conventional flat floor. A group of up to 70 Australian defense force personnel has also been stationed in Britain to help train Ukrainian troops.

Analysts say the commitment of Germany and the United States to deliver tanks to Ukraine puts pressure on Australia to increase its military assistance to Kyiv.

Vasyl Myroshnychenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Friday he hopes Canberra will boost military assistance to his country.

“Australia can choose to send more Bushmasters,” he said. “What is important is that Australia continues supporting Ukraine. We are extremely thankful for what Australia has done so far, especially the last package, which was announced in October, where another 30 Bushmasters were allocated. The troops, which are now in Britain, will be training Ukrainian soldiers. We are thankful for that. it is really a big help.”

The United States is by far the biggest provider of weapons and equipment to Ukraine, followed by Britain, Poland, Germany and Canada.

Australia also has sweeping sanctions on Russia — the most severe ever imposed on a foreign government.

Since the war began almost a year ago, Australia has granted visas to almost 9,000 Ukrainian refugees.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said Canberra condemns “Russia’s unilateral, illegal and immoral aggression against the people of Ukraine,” adding that the “invasion is a gross violation of international law.”

Wong and Marles head to France next week to try to repair a diplomatic rift caused by Canberra’s abrupt cancelation in 2021 of a lucrative submarine contract with Paris in favor of a new alliance — the AUKUS pact — with the United States and Britain.

They will also travel to Britain for ministerial talks.

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Europe Scrambles to Deliver Tanks in ‘Pivotal’ Moment for Ukraine War

Germany and its European allies plan to send around 80 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in the coming weeks, according to Berlin, which announced the change of policy this week following intense pressure from Kyiv and its Western partners.

The Leopard 2 is considered one of the world’s most powerful tanks and well-suited to the Ukraine conflict.

Britain and the United States are also sending dozens of their main battle tanks. The decision marks a significant step up in Western weapons supplies to Ukraine and is being seen by NATO as a pivotal moment in the war — one that also draws Western nations deeper into the conflict.

March delivery

Germany not only plans to send 14 tanks but has also permitted allies to send their German-made Leopard tanks. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the tanks should be delivered by the end of March.

“My primary task now is to enter into talks with the defense industry with the aim of significantly speeding up procurement times,” Pistorius said Thursday during a visit to an army training camp. “If you look at ammunition, there is also the issue of quantity. … I will also hold initial talks with the arms industry on this issue, probably as early as next week,” he added.

Poland, Spain, Norway and Finland have all said they were willing to send Leopard 2 tanks. Canada announced Thursday it would send four of the tanks to Kyiv.

Germany said Wednesday the total should amount to two battalions, or around 80 vehicles.

Time and strategy

In addition, Ukraine will receive 14 British Challenger 2 tanks in the coming weeks and 31 U.S. Abrams tanks from the United States later in the year. Ukrainian troops will require several weeks of training on the different equipment, said John Lough, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based policy institute Chatham House.

“The Ukrainians have proved to be, I think, remarkably capable of absorbing Western military assistance. But it does take time, and time is not on their side, given that spring is round the corner and there’s an expectation that Russia is going to mount some form of major offensive,” Lough told VOA.

Ukraine will have to decide how to integrate the tanks into its armed forces.

“The tanks will make a real difference,” said Ed Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, a defense and security think tank in the U.K. “Ukraine will still need to decide, actually, how they use these tanks. Do they put them straight into the fight as soon as they’re available? Or do they integrate them into larger formations, train and rehearse those larger formations, and spend a bit more time integrating them into the way that they fight to then potentially use in the summer?” Arnold told the Reuters news agency.

‘Pivotal’ moment in the war

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the decision to send tanks as a “pivotal moment.”

“We must provide heavier and more advanced systems to Ukraine, and we must do it faster,” Stoltenberg said.

Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University in Washington, said the delivery of Western main battle tanks to Ukraine is further evidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation.

“What Vladimir Putin is hoping for and has been for the past few months is that this kind of threat of intimidation and then weariness in the Europeans — particularly for the impact that sanctions is having on their own economies — that all those things will cause the transatlantic unity on this to break. But so far, it hasn’t. We’ve seen the opposite,” Stent told Reuters.

Kyiv says it needs 300 tanks — far more than it is likely to receive in the coming months. Ukraine also says it needs Western fighter jets such as the American F-16 to defeat the Russian invasion. Could that be the next barrier for the West to overcome?

“As air forces in Europe and the U.S. modernize, they have older equipment that they potentially could give to Ukraine. It would be another escalatory measure. But I think at the moment what they want to do is see how Ukraine gets on with the tanks and then assess from there,” Arnold said.

Western involvement

The West is now heavily invested in the Ukraine war. Its flagship battle tanks, crewed by Ukrainians, will soon go head-to-head with Russian armor on the steppes of Europe.

John Lough of Chatham House said the West must be clear about the implications.

“Sending this level of equipment in these quantities means that NATO countries are, I think, effectively entering the war,” Lough said. “Of course, indirectly, but they are, because they are becoming the critical sole source of supply to the Ukrainian armed forces.

“This could go on for a very long time,” Lough continued. “The Russians recognize this, and we can tell from Putin’s messaging to Russian society that he is preparing the country for a long war. The question, I think, however, on the Western side is whether Western governments are prepared to do the same thing with their own societies.”

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German MP: ‘Small’ Positive Developments in Case of Iran’s Jailed Rapper

There have been several “small” positive developments in the situation of jailed Iranian hip-hop star and dissident Toomaj Salehi, according to a German lawmaker serving as his political sponsor.

Salehi has been in solitary confinement for 89 days at Dastgerd Prison in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, according to the latest update from his official Twitter account, which is being administered by his supporters.

He was detained by Iranian authorities on October 30, 2022, and charged with several offenses, including “corruption on Earth,” a serious crime punishable by death. His songs denounce Iran’s Islamist rulers and the perceived injustices they have perpetrated against the Iranian people.

Salehi also embraced Iran’s anti-government protest movement that began last September. In the days before his arrest, he posted videos of himself on Instagram participating in peaceful street demonstrations and urging others to do the same.

In December, Iranian state media published a video of Salehi appearing to express regret for promoting violence through music, as he put it. But his supporters denounced the video as the latest example of the Iranian government’s common practice of producing videos of forced confessions of alleged crimes by people whom it targets for arrest.

Ye-One Rhie, a member of the German federal parliament for the ruling Social Democratic Party, has been campaigning for Salehi’s release in recent months as part of a long-standing tradition of German lawmakers serving as sponsors of political prisoners around the world. She discussed the latest developments in his case in a January 20 phone interview for VOA’s “Flashpoint Iran” podcast.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: You’ve been trying to contact the Iranian ambassador to Germany, and I understand you’ve written multiple letters and only received one response so far. So, why are you continuing to write to him?

Ye-One Rhie, German Federal Parliament Member: We are not writing because we really expect him to reply in a very honest and open way. We just want him to know that we will keep an eye out for all the political prisoners that we have a sponsorship for, and that he should never think that we lessen our approach, or that our attention is weakening. So, that’s the reason why we are writing him.

But we are looking out very carefully at what is happening with the prisoners in Iran. We are just looking for: Are there any lighter sentences? Are there people or prisoners who get out of prison, or whose death sentence has been lifted? That’s the response we are looking for. And we don’t want the embassy or the regime in Iran to think that we don’t care anymore. That’s the reason why we keep writing.

VOA: Do you have any idea how many other German parliament members are politically sponsoring Iranian prisoners, and what kind of coordination do you have with them?

Rhie: There are over 300 members of parliament in Germany who have political sponsorships. It’s [not only] the members of the Bundestag but also the [German] members of the European Parliament.

And we have, I think as far as I know, two bigger coordinations going on. There are three activists who are doing it. They have, I think, matched and coordinated most of the sponsorships.

We [also] have the International Society for Human Rights [IGFM] in Germany, and they have a lot of experience already in matching and coordinating political sponsorships.

So, they are doing all the research work. They are finding out who is in prison right now for political reasons — what the accusations are, what the status is, and how to get in touch with people who know more about their cases. So, that’s what they are doing. The members of parliament are just the ones who are in public for that. But the work in the background is going on with the IGFM and the activists who are doing it.

VOA: Speaking of the status of the prisoners, what have you learned about Toomaj’s latest condition?

Rhie: As far as I know, the last I heard from him, is — what I always repeat — that the condition of his left eye is still worrying. Probably most people know that he was tortured and that he had a lot of broken bones all over his body. But especially the condition of his left eye is worrying because we don’t really know how far his eyesight is affected.

And what I’m hearing is, if he doesn’t get treated very, very soon, it might be permanent. So, that’s the most worrying aspect of this health condition right now.

Other than that, there are a few small positive steps, like that his father was allowed to visit him on a very regular basis, and that his two appointed lawyers were chosen by himself. But it’s not enough that I would say, “Well, we made progress,” because we don’t really know how far they [Iranian authorities] will go with that, or if they will turn back all of those developments that we are considering to be a little bit positive.

So, the lawyers don’t have access to all the case files. So, it could be a little bit of a scam to be allowed to have the lawyers but [at the same time] they are not allowed to study the case files. So, they are not prepared, [and] so it doesn’t make any change in how the court ruling will go. So, we are pressing for that.

But I’m relieved that he has at least some kind of contact with the father, because he has been in solitary confinement for 80 [now 89] days. I mean, every person would go insane just being by himself and being tortured and being injured as he is. So, small steps. That’s pretty much what we are getting out of this situation right now.

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US, German, British Tanks Bolster Ukraine’s Capabilities

With the U.S. now joining Germany and Britain in promising to send battle tanks to Ukraine, what are the capabilities and differences among the three types of tanks that will join the fight? VOA’s Steve Redisch takes their measure.

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Ukraine Hit by Deadly Wave of Russian Missile Strikes as Zelenskyy Calls for Aircraft, Missiles

Russia launched new missile attacks on several locations in Ukraine on Thursday, killing 11 people and wounding 11 others, authorities reported.

Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said the attacks hit 11 regions across the country. Ukraine’s Air Force said Russia fired 55 missiles, with Ukraine shooting down most of them. Thirty-five buildings were damaged in the attacks.

Moscow’s forces continued to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in the depth of winter, an effort to demoralize Ukrainians. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in a post on Telegram, “The main goal is energy facilities, providing Ukrainians with light and heat.”

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said one person was killed in the Ukrainian capital and two more were wounded when a missile hit a building. The state prosecutor general’s office said three people were killed in a Russian strike on infrastructure in Zaporizhzhia, where Europe’s biggest nuclear plant is located, and there were reports of strikes in the Vinnytsia region in western Ukraine and outside Odesa.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Mariano Grossi said that IAEA’s security staff has been reporting almost daily blasts near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, with eight detonations heard Wednesday and more on Thursday. He called again, as he has for months, for Russia and Ukraine to agree to a safety and security zone around the nuclear plant to make sure it is not targeted and not used for attacks from the site.

Grossi discussed the proposed zone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv last week and is also continuing discussions with Russia.

Six reactors remain shut down at the Zaporizhzhia site with two continuing in hot shutdown mode to supply steam and heat to the plant and the nearby city of Enerhodar.

The new missile attacks came after Zelenskyy, speaking just hours after Germany and the United States pledged to provide Kyiv with advanced battle tanks, called on Kyiv’s Western allies to deliver long-range missiles and military aircraft to beef up Ukraine’s air defense.

Zelenskyy praised the allies’ commitment to deliver advanced tanks and urged them to provide large numbers of tanks quickly, although it could be months before some of them arrive on the battlefront.

“The key now is speed and volumes. Speed in training our forces, speed in supplying tanks to Ukraine. The numbers in tank support,” he said. “We have to form such a ‘tank fist,’ such a ‘fist of freedom.'”

“It is very important that there is progress in other aspects of our defense cooperation, as well,” Zelenskyy said.

“We must also open the supply of long-range missiles to Ukraine. It is important. We must also expand our cooperation in artillery. We must enter into the supply of aircraft for Ukraine. And this is a dream. And this is the task,” he added.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday the U.S. will send 31 of its highly advanced Abrams tanks in a move he said was not a threat to Russia.

Moscow has warned that it regards the Western supply of advanced battle tanks to Ukraine a dangerous provocation.

Speaking from the White House, Biden said the NATO tanks for Ukraine would help “improve their ability to maneuver in open terrain.”

He praised Berlin’s similar announcement as evidence that “Germany has really stepped up.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said hours earlier that Germany will supply 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and will also allow third countries to reexport their own German-made Leopards.

Scholz said the decision was “the right principle” in the face of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, a war now in its 12th month.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius added that the first Leopard tanks could be in Ukraine within three months.

Some material in this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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US Dismantles Ransomware Network Responsible for More Than $100 Million in Extortion

An international ransomware network that extorted more than $100 million from hundreds of victims around the world has been brought down following a monthslong infiltration by the FBI, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

The group known as Hive targeted more than 1,500 victims, including hospitals, school districts and financial firms in more than 80 countries, the Justice Department said. Officials say the most recent victim in Florida was targeted about two weeks ago.

In a breakthrough, FBI agents armed with a court order infiltrated Hive’s computer networks in July 2022, covertly capturing its decryption keys and offering them to victims, saving the targets $130 million in ransom payments, officials said.

“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat. But as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to identify and bring to justice, anyone, anywhere, who targets the United States with a ransomware attack,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

Working with German and Dutch law enforcement, the FBI on Wednesday took down the servers that power the Hive network.

“Simply put, using lawful means, we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

While no arrests have been made in connection with the takedown, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that anybody involved with Hive should be concerned, because this investigation is very much ongoing.

“We’re engaged in what we call ‘joint sequenced operations’ … and that includes going after their infrastructure, going after their crypto and going after the people who work with them,” Wray said.

In a ransomware attack, hackers lock in a victim’s network and then demand payments in exchange for providing a decryption key.

Hive used a “ransomware-as-a-service” model where so-called “administrators” develop a malicious software strain and recruit “affiliates” to deploy them against victims.

Officials said Hive affiliates targeted critical U.S. infrastructure entities.

In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hive affiliates attacked a Midwest hospital’s network, preventing the medical facility from accepting any new patients, Garland said.

It was only able to recover the data after it paid a ransom.

Hive’s takedown is the latest in the Biden administration’s crackdown on ransomware attacks that are on the rise, costing businesses and organizations billions of dollars.

U.S. banks and financial institutions processed nearly $1.2 billion in suspected ransomware payments in 2021, more than double the amount in 2020, the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) reported in November.

Roughly 75% of the ransomware attacks reported in 2021 had a nexus to Russia, its proxies or persons acting on its behalf, according to FinCen.

The top five highest-grossing ransomware tools used in 2021 were connected to Russian cyber actors, according to FinCen.

Officials would not say whether Hive had any link to Russia.

The Biden administration views ransomware attacks not just as a “pocketbook issue” that affects ordinary Americans but increasingly as a growing national security threat that calls for a coordinated response.

Last year, the White House hosted a two-day international ransomware summit where participants from 36 countries agreed to create a fusion cell at the Regional Cyber Defense Center in Lithuania, followed by an International Counter Ransomware Task Force later this year.

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US to Sanction Russia’s Wagner Paramilitary Group

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Thursday a series of sanctions targeting individuals associated with Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group, including its leader and associated front companies, for waging war in Ukraine, including battlefield activities and the targeting of civilians.

In a statement, Blinken said the sanctions will target five entities and one individual linked to the Wagner Group and its head, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as well as several other individuals and entities, for their status as government officials and for being part of Russia’s military industrial complex.

Blinken’s statement said the State Department also is designating three individuals for their roles as heads of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, which has been reported to facilitate the recruitment of Russian prisoners into the Wagner Group, and subsequently sent to the front lines to fight in the conflict in Ukraine.

Additionally, the top U.S. diplomat said the U.S. Treasury Department is designating the Wagner Group a “significant transnational criminal organization” for actions taken in Africa.

The statement said the “group’s pattern of serious criminal behavior includes violent harassment of journalists, aid workers, and members of minority groups and harassment, obstruction, and intimidation of U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, as well as rape and killings in Mali.”

In the statement Thursday, Blinken noted, “The United States is steadfast in our resolve against Russia’s aggression and other destabilizing behavior worldwide. [Thursday’s] designations will further impede the Kremlin’s ability to arm its war-machine that is engaged in a war of aggression against Ukraine, and which has caused unconscionable death and destruction.”

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Burkina Faso Protesters Call for Russians to Help Fight Islamist Militants

After a recent military pullout, only about 400 French troops remain in Burkina Faso to help the government fight Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But now many in the country want Russia to help and the government has ordered all French troops to leave within the month. Reporter Kader Traore has more from Ouagadougou in this report narrated by Vincent Makori.

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Air Raid Alert in Ukraine as Zelenskyy Calls for Aircraft, Missiles

Russia launched a fresh wave of missile strikes on Ukraine in the morning Thursday, killing at least one person, hours after an overnight drone attack, while heavy fighting continues unabated in the east, where Moscow’s forces have been increasing pressure on Ukrainian defenders.

The new missile attacks came after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking just hours after Germany and the United States pledged to provide Kyiv with advanced battle tanks, called on Kyiv’s Western allies to deliver long-range missiles and military aircraft to beef up Ukraine’s air defense.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said one person was killed and two others were wounded in a strike on the capital and urged residents to stay in shelters.

“As a result of a rocket hitting a nonresidential building in the Holosiyiv district, we have information about one dead and two wounded. The wounded were hospitalized,” he said.

Serhiy Popko, the head of Kyiv’s military administration, said more than a dozen missiles were destroyed above the capital by air defenses.

“The enemy launched more than 15 cruise missiles in the direction of Kyiv. Thanks to the excellent work of air defense, all air targets were shot down,” he said.

Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, wrote on Telegram, “the first Russian missiles have already been shot down,” without specifying the locations.

Two energy facilities were hit by Russian missiles in the southern region of Odesa, local authorities said.

“There is already information about damage done to two critical energy infrastructure facilities in Odesa. There are no injured. Air-defense forces are working over the Odesa region,” the head of the region’s military administration, Yuriy Kruk, wrote on social media. 

The central region of Vinnitsya was also targeted by Russian missiles, said Serhiy Borzov, the head of the regional military administration, adding that there were no casualties.

Earlier, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Military said its forces destroyed 24 drones, including 15 over Kyiv, that Russia launched in overnight attacks.

Zelenskyy said in his regular nightly video address on Wednesday that it is now necessary to “go ahead with the supply of aircraft for Ukraine.”

On the battlefield, Ukrainian forces continued to sustain incessant pressure from Russian attacks in the east, mainly in Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in the Donetsk region and Chervopopyivka in Luhansk, the General Staff said in its daily report Thursday.

“Despite suffering numerous losses, the enemy did not halt its offensive actions,” the General Staff said, adding that Ukrainian defenders also repelled attacks in Lyman, Kupyansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson.

Russia has been “intensifying” its offensive near Bakhmut, where it deployed a “superior number of soldiers and weapons” in what has become a hot spot in the 11-month-old invasion, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Wednesday, adding that “the enemy is intensifying pressure in the Bakhmut and Vuhledar sectors” of the front.

Ukrainian officials on Wednesday also acknowledged their loss to Russian forces of the Donetsk-region salt-mining town of Soledar as many military experts are forecasting a Russian spring offensive in the area.

Berlin and Washington agreed to provide the tanks following months of intense debate among NATO allies in the hope of helping stem the expected push by Russia.

Zelenskyy praised the allies’ commitment to deliver advanced tanks and urged them to provide large numbers of tanks quickly.

“The key now is speed and volumes. Speed in training our forces, speed in supplying tanks to Ukraine. The numbers in tank support,” he said. “We have to form such a ‘tank fist,’ such a ‘fist of freedom.'”

“It is very important that there is progress in other aspects of our defense cooperation as well,” Zelenskyy said.

“We must also open the supply of long-range missiles to Ukraine. It is important — we must also expand our cooperation in artillery, we must enter into the supply of aircraft for Ukraine. And this is a dream. And this is the task.”

President Joe Biden on Wednesday said the United States will send 31 of its highly advanced Abrams tanks in a move he said was not a threat to Russia.

Moscow has warned that it regards the Western supply of advanced battle tanks to Ukraine a dangerous provocation.

Speaking from the White House, Biden said the NATO tanks for Ukraine would help “improve their ability to maneuver in open terrain.”

He praised Berlin’s similar announcement as evidence that “Germany has really stepped up.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said hours earlier that Germany will supply 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and will also allow third countries to reexport their own German-made Leopards.

Scholz said the decision, approved Wednesday, was “the right principle” in the face of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius added that the first Leopard tanks could be in Ukraine within three months.

With reporting by Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and dpa.

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