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US, Russia Trade Jabs Over Ukraine

 Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he is ready for negotiations with the West — provided the West recognizes Russia’s “new territories” taken from Ukraine.

The statement from the Kremlin came after what appeared to be a cautious diplomatic overture from the White House.

At a news conference Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron, President Joe Biden said, “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. He hasn’t done that yet.”

The Kremlin shot back that Putin is “open to negotiations,” but the West must accept his proclamation that the southern region of Kherson and three other partly occupied regions of Ukraine now belong to Russia. Russia’s invasion has been condemned as illegal by most countries.

In his daily address Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled a referendum held 31 years ago on December 1 “that united the entire territory of our state. … Everyone expressed their support.” 

“People confirmed the Act of Proclamation of Independence of Ukraine — freely and legally. It was a real referendum …  an honest referendum, and that is why it was recognized by the world. …  Ukrainian rules will prevail,” the president said.  

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The president of the Russian Federation has always been, is and remains open to negotiations in order to ensure our interests.”

The comments came as Putin spoke on the phone with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday morning. Scholz is quoted as telling Putin “There must be a diplomatic solution as quickly as possible, which includes a withdrawal of Russian troops.”

For his part, Putin accused “Western states, including Germany,” of making it possible for Kyiv to refuse to negotiate with Russia.

“Attention was drawn to the destructive line of Western states, including Germany, which are pumping the Kyiv regime with weapons and training the Ukrainian military,” the Kremlin said.

In a written statement, Scholz’s spokesperson said, “the chancellor condemned in particular the Russian airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and stressed Germany’s determination to support Ukraine ensuring its defense capability against Russian aggression.”

Speculation about negotiations to end the war has increased as Moscow’s military advances in Ukraine have stalled and in some cases been turned back. Russia’s missile strikes against Ukraine’s power infrastructure have left millions of Ukrainians without power, heat and water as winter sets in.

Biden, who has spoken frequently with Ukraine President Zelenskyy, has said whether or not to negotiate with Russia is a decision for Ukraine to make.

U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby underscored the point in a statement Friday, saying only Zelenskyy can determine if and when there can be a negotiated settlement.

President Biden has not spoken with Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine. Last March, Biden called Putin “a war criminal.”

On Thursday, France announced its support for creating a special tribunal to try those accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Russia’s foreign ministry said Friday it was “outraged” by France’s position.

“We demand that French diplomats, who are so attentive to human rights issues, not divide people into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’,” the foreign ministry said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that the EU would try to set up a specialized court, backed by the United Nations, to investigate and prosecute possible war crimes committed by Russia during its invasion.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and other war crimes.

U.N.-appointed investigators are examining whether Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, leaving millions without heating as temperatures plummet, amount to war crimes, a member of the inspection team said Friday.

Fierce fighting continued Friday in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Ukraine’s military said it fought off wave after wave of Russian attacks.

Kyiv said Russian troops attacked Ukrainian positions in 14 settlements, while carrying out 30 airstrikes and 35 multiple-rocket attacks on civilian areas.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence update Friday on Ukraine said, “Russia’s withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River last month has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with opportunities to strike additional Russian logistics nodes and lines of communication.” 

“This threat has highly likely prompted Russian logisticians to relocate supply nodes, including rail transfer points, further south and east,” according to the report posted on Twitter. “Russian logistics units will need to conduct extra labor-intensive loading and unloading from rail to road transport. Road moves will subsequently still be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery as they move on to supply Russian forward defensive positions.” 

The ministry said, “Russia’s shortage of munitions [exacerbated bv these logistics challenges] is likely one of the main factors currently limiting Russia’s potential to restart effective, large scale offensive ground operations.” 

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Office of the President of Ukraine, told the Kanel 24 television channel Thursday that between 10,000 to 13,000 soldiers have been killed in the conflict. 

Reuters is reporting that three people were killed and seven were wounded overnight in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson region.

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Kyiv Schools Adapt to Survive Under Russian Bombardment

Despite the missile strikes and power cuts that have become a regular occurrence in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv’s 190,000 remaining school children are still expected to attend classes, whether online or in person.

“If there is no light, it’s sometimes hard to see when you are writing,” said Yulia, 13, sitting in the front row of an English lesson with around a dozen classmates in a western suburb of the city.

Though her school, like most buildings in Ukraine’s embattled capital, experiences regular electricity cuts caused by Russian missiles that have been targeting the power grid since October, city officials insist pupils will at least be able to finish the current semester, which ends December 23.

“We really need to hold on for these three weeks,” Oleksiy Kurpas, an adviser to the deputy head of Kyiv’s city administration, told Reuters in one of the airy yet warm corridors of the Soviet-era school.

Kurpas expressed hope that the school year would run until the summer, but the wider situation is bleak: nearly half of Ukraine’s power grid has been wrecked and Kyiv has said it expects further attacks.

The official said that about 85% of Kyiv’s prewar school staff remained in the city, compared with 60% of pupils. The other students have moved to safer regions or abroad.

As a result, schools have been working in hybrid mode both in person and online since the start of the academic year.

Online classes are attended by many students still in Kyiv, as there is still a citywide shortfall of 35,000 places in school bomb shelters where students and staff must take refuge during air raid sirens.

Lessons lost with power loss

When power goes out across the city, life is difficult for teachers and pupils alike.

Sixteen-year-old Masha, studiously taking notes during her geometry lesson, described the kind of disruption she faced.

“If the internet doesn’t work, when they give us tests, sometimes they don’t load,” she said.

The school’s head teacher, Olena Roman, said staff were sometimes unable to set homework if the power suddenly went down, and pupils learning remotely often struggled during power cuts in their homes.

Kyiv’s mobile coverage drops significantly during outages, as base stations are forced to use backup batteries with limited power reserves.

Kurpas acknowledged this was a problem and said his own child had been affected by it, but added that “all possible measures,” such as passing material through several messaging apps at once, were being taken to minimize the impact on learning.

Despite the city’s precarious situation, Roman remained confident that the school would keep teaching.

“We will continue working, without question … we have a generator, it will allow us to work in any situation, and that is what we will do,” she said.

Private schools become refuges

Kyiv’s private schools, many of which opened in the years preceding the invasion, have been able to use their greater financial resources to prepare extensively for the disruptions.

A small private school in north Kyiv has even established a heated and powered hub for parents who want to find refuge from cold, dark homes.

“After November 23, the most recent blackouts, I was able to charge my devices and get in touch with my relatives, because there was no mobile connection at home,” said Daria, a parent of one of the children at the school. “I spent all morning here … There were quite a few parents, at least 15, who used the opportunity to work, hold meetings.” 

However, nothing can completely shield children from the most basic reality of war – fear.

“(During air raid sirens) I get scared because you don’t know what’s going on,” 9-year-old Daria Kosova told Reuters. “Some kids start screaming and running around, those who are more terrified, and I don’t know what to do.”

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Halifax: North America’s Next National Security Hub?

The quiet Canadian port city of Halifax is looking forward to a high-tech future after having been chosen as the North American host for NATO’s latest effort to spur the development of cutting-edge technologies seen as crucial to 21st century warfare.

The selection was announced at last month’s Halifax International Security Forum, an annual event in which top politicians, military leadership and experts from around the world meet to discuss the defense of democracies.

It had already been decided that one of the program’s two offices would be located in Canada. A European regional office was selected from a joint Estonian-United Kingdom bid, according to a NATO announcement earlier this year.

The initiative, known as the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), was unveiled during an April 6-7 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

The alliance said then that DIANA “will concentrate on deep technologies – those emerging and disruptive technologies that NATO has identified as priorities including: artificial intelligence, big-data processing, quantum-enabled technologies, autonomy, biotechnology, novel materials and space.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg added that NATO would work with the private sector and academia to “ensure that we can harness the best of new technology for transatlantic security.”

The ministers also agreed to establish a 1 billion euro ($1.05 billion) venture capital fund to invest in “early-stage start-ups and other deep tech funds aligned with [NATO’s] strategic objectives,” according to the April announcement.

The selection appears to be a good fit for Halifax, which despite its relatively small population of 431,000 is Canada’s most important Atlantic seaport and home to the nation’s largest military base. More than 40 percent of Canada’s military assets are located in the surrounding province, according to the Nova Scotia government.

The city also features the regional headquarters of Canada’s civilian intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Nova Scotia headquarters of the national police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Halifax’s harbor is the site of a major shipbuilding industry for the Canadian Navy and its naval dockyard features a processing center for the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing countries — Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It also has one of Canada’s three regional Marine Security Operations Centres (MSOCs), designed to coordinate the nation’s response to any maritime threat.

“Halifax is a great fit for DIANA and its priorities of NATO working more closely with industry and academia,” said Emily Smits, CEO of Modest Tree, a Canadian defense contractor considered one of the rising stars in the industry.

“Halifax is growing rapidly as a tech hub and has many major universities in Halifax and throughout the province. Having DIANA come to Halifax would further position the city as a place of innovation in emerging technologies and demonstrate this on a global scale.”

Asked by VOA what the establishment of DIANA in Halifax would mean for her company, Smits said, “It will allow further collaboration in academia, global industry and potential contracts and partnership discussions. Innovation hubs and networking opportunities that include global players in your backyard are always great for continued discussions.”

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US Whistleblower Snowden Gets Russian Passport, TASS Reports

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the scale of secret surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), has sworn an oath of allegiance to Russia and received a Russian passport, TASS reported Friday. 

“Yes, he got [a passport], he took the oath,” Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, told the state news agency TASS.  

Snowden, 39, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the report. 

President Vladimir Putin in September granted Russian citizenship to Snowden, who fled the United States after leaking secret files that revealed the extensive eavesdropping activities of the United States and its allies. 

Defenders of Snowden hail him as a modern-day dissident for exposing the extent of U.S. spying. Opponents say he is a traitor who endangered lives by exposing the secret methods that Western spies use to listen in on hostile states and militants. 

 

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Zelenskyy: ‘Ukrainian Rules Will Prevail’

The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence update Friday on Ukraine said, “Russia’s withdrawal from the west bank of the Dnipro River last month has provided the Ukrainian Armed Forces with opportunities to strike additional Russian logistics nodes and lines of communication.”

“This threat has highly likely prompted Russian logisticians to relocate supply nodes, including rail transfer points, further south and east,” according to the report posted on Twitter. “Russian logistics units will need to conduct extra labor-intensive loading and unloading from rail to road transport. Road moves will subsequently still be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery as they move on to supply Russian forward defensive positions.”

The ministry said, “Russia’s shortage of munitions (exacerbated bv these logistics challenges) is likely one of the main factors currently limiting Russia’s potential to restart effective, large scale offensive ground operations.”

In his daily address Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled a referendum held 31 years ago on Dec. 1 ”that united the entire territory of our state … Everyone expressed their support.”

“People confirmed the Act of Proclamation of Independence of Ukraine — freely and legally. It was a real referendum … an honest referendum, and that is why it was recognized by the world … Ukrainian rules will prevail,” the president said in a swipe at the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The president also said in his speech that he wants to ensure Ukraine’s spiritual independence, in a likely reference to a recent raid on Ukraine’s Russian-affiliated Monastery of the Caves, a 1,000-year-old Eastern Orthodox monastery in Kyiv, where security forces were looking to flush out spies housed among the clerics.

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Ukrainian Engineers Scramble to Keep Mobile Phones Working

With Ukraine scrambling to keep communication lines open during the war, an army of engineers from the country’s phone companies has mobilized to help the public and policymakers stay in touch during repeated Russian missile and drone strikes.

The engineers, who typically go unseen and unsung in peacetime, often work around the clock to maintain or restore phone service, sometimes braving minefields to do so. After Russian strikes took out the electricity that cellphone towers usually run on, they revved up generators to keep the towers on.

“I know our guys – my colleagues – are very exhausted, but they’re motivated by the fact that we are doing an important thing,” Yuriy Dugnist, an engineer with Ukrainian telecommunications company Kyivstar, said after crunching through 15 centimeters of fresh snow to reach a fenced-in mobile phone tower on the western fringe of Kyiv, the capital.

Dugrist and his coworkers offered a glimpse of their new daily routines, which involve using an app on their own phones to monitor which of the scores of phone towers in the capital area were receiving electricity, either during breaks from the controlled blackouts being used to conserve energy or from the generators that kick in to provide backup power.

One entry ominously read, in English, “Low Fuel.”

Stopping off at a service station before their rounds, the team members filled up eight 20-liter jerrycans with diesel fuel for a vast tank under a generator that relays power up a 50-meter cell tower in a suburban village that has had no electricity for days.

It’s one of many Ukrainian towns that have had intermittent power, or none at all, in the wake of multiple rounds of devastating Russian strikes in recent weeks targeting the country’s infrastructure – power plants in particular.

Kyivstar is the largest of Ukraine’s three main mobile phone companies, with some 26 million customers – or the equivalent of about two-thirds of the country’s population before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion drove millions of people abroad, even if many have since returned.

The diesel generators were installed at the foot of the cell phone towers since long before the invasion, but they were rarely needed. Many Western countries have offered up similar generators and transformers to help Ukraine keep electricity running as well as possible after Russia’s blitz.

After emergency blackouts prompted by a round of Russian strikes on Nov. 23, Kyivstar deployed 15 teams of engineers simultaneously and called in “all our reserves” to troubleshoot the 2,500 mobile stations in their service area, Dugrist said.

He recalled rushing to the site of a destroyed cell tower when Russian forces pulled out of Irpin, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, earlier this year and getting there before Ukrainian minesweepers had arrived to give the all-clear signal.

The strain the war is putting on Ukraine’s mobile phone networks has reportedly driven up prices for satellite phone alternatives like Elon Musk’s Starlink system, which Ukraine’s military has used during the conflict, now in its 10th month.

After widespread infrastructure strikes last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy convened top officials to discuss the restoration work and supplies needed to safeguard the country’s energy and communication systems.

“Special attention is paid to the communication system,” he said, adding that no matter what the Russia has in mind, “we must maintain communication.”

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Biden and Macron Say Russia Must Leave Ukraine for War to End 

US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that they would never pressure Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war with Russia, saying the US and France stand as united as ever with their NATO allies against Moscow’s invasion. VOA’s senior diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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Musk’s Company Aims to Soon Test Brain Implant in People

Tech billionaire Elon Musk said his Neuralink company is seeking permission to test its brain implant in people soon.

In a “show and tell” presentation livestreamed Wednesday night, Musk said his team is in the process of asking U.S. regulators to allow them to test the device. He said he thinks the company should be able to put the implant in a human brain as part of a clinical trial in about six months, though that timeline is far from certain.

Musk’s Neuralink is one of many groups working on linking brains to computers, efforts aimed at helping treat brain disorders, overcoming brain injuries and other applications.

The field dates to the 1960s, said Rajesh Rao, co-director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington. “But it really took off in the ’90s. And more recently we’ve seen lots of advances, especially in the area of communication brain computer interfaces.”

Rao, who watched Musk’s presentation online, said he doesn’t think Neuralink is ahead of the pack in terms of brain-computer interface achievements. “But … they are quite ahead in terms of the actual hardware in the devices,” he said.

The Neuralink device is about the size of a large coin and is designed to be implanted in the skull, with ultra-thin wires going directly into the brain. Musk said the first two applications in people would be restoring vision and helping people with little or no ability to operate their muscles rapidly use digital devices.

He said he also envisions that in someone with a broken neck, signals from the brain could be bridged to Neuralink devices in the spinal cord.

“We’re confident there are no physical limitations to enabling full body functionality,” said Musk, who recently took over Twitter and is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.

In experiments by other teams, implanted sensors have let paralyzed people use brain signals to operate computers and move robotic arms. In a 2018 study in the journal PLOS ONE, three participants with paralysis below the neck affecting all of their limbs used an experimental brain-computer interface being tested by the consortium BrainGate. The interface records neural activity from a small sensor in the brain to navigate things like email and apps.

A recent study in the journal Nature, by scientists at the Swiss research center NeuroRestore, identified a type of neuron activated by electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, allowing nine patients with chronic spinal cord injury to walk again.

Researchers have also been working on brain and machine interfaces for restoring vision. Rao said some companies have developed retinal implants, but Musk’s announcement suggested his team would use signals directly targeting the brain’s visual cortex, an approach that some academic groups are also pursuing, “with limited success.”

Neuralink did not immediately respond to an email to the press office. Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a neurosurgery professor at Stanford University who is an adviser for Neuralink, said one way Neuralink is different from some other devices is that it has the ability to reach into deeper layers of the brain. But he added: “There are lots of different systems that have lots of different advantages.”

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