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UKRAINE UPDATE: 19 FEBRUARY 2024

Ukraine foreign minister meets Chinese counterpart; Munich forum spotlights drone warfare, AI risks

Ukraine foreign minister meets Chinese counterpart; Munich forum spotlights drone warfare, AI risks
From left: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the 2024 Munich Security Conference in Germany on 17 February 2024. (Photo: Johannes Simon / Getty Images) | Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at the 2024 Munich Security Conference. (Photo: Johannes Simon / Getty Images)

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

Two years into Russia’s invasion, advances in drone warfare have been hailed as a way for Ukraine to partly neutralise Russia’s military advantage. The relatively inexpensive drones have allowed Kyiv’s forces to strike back, including within Russia, although officials at the annual Munich Security Conference said the advances also came with risks.

The European Union should work on a plan to issue €100-billion in eurobonds to boost the continent’s defence industry, and in the meantime do more to get weapons to Ukraine, Estonia’s prime minister said.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius urged US legislators to approve additional military aid for Ukraine stalled in Congress, warning that failure to do so could damage the US’s economic interests.

Ukraine foreign minister meets with Chinese counterpart 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

The officials discussed bilateral relations, trade and the “need to restore a just and lasting peace” in Ukraine, according to Kuleba’s post on X, formerly Twitter.

Kuleba said he briefed Wang about Ukraine’s plans for a high-level meeting to discuss ways to end Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Kyiv has been pushing for a meeting as soon as March, although the date is likely to slip to April or May due to a lack of commitment from world leaders, according to people familiar with the plans. Switzerland has said it is open to hosting the gathering.

Read more: China’s Wang says time isn’t right to talk Russia-Ukraine peace

“We agreed on the need to maintain Ukraine-China contacts at all levels and continue our dialogue,” Kuleba said.  

Wang reiterated China’s position on Ukraine to promote peace talks in their meeting on Saturday, saying the country would never add fuel to the fire, according to a readout from Beijing.

The Chinese official also said China would never sell lethal weapons to conflict areas or parties in conflict and would continue to play a constructive role in ending the war and re-establishing peace as soon as possible. 

Ukraine’s delegation in Munich made a meeting with Wang and other Chinese officials a priority. Yet Wang on Saturday said conditions weren’t right for talks centred on ending Russia’s two-year invasion of Ukraine.

Drone warfare, AI risks among the big Munich talking points

Two years into Russia’s invasion, advances in drone warfare have been hailed as a way for Ukraine to partly neutralise Russia’s military advantage. 

The relatively inexpensive drones have allowed Kyiv’s forces to strike back, including within Russia — unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have reached targets hundreds of kilometres from the border — although officials at the annual Munich Security Conference said the advances also come with risks. 

In particular, officials at the event, a gathering of world leaders, military personnel and international security advisers, warned it would become harder for Nato powers to establish control over air space in conflict zones because of the technology. The prevalence of the technology means a greater need for European nations to bolster their air defence, two people warned on the sidelines of the summit.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, gave a recorded presentation to the summit’s “Innovation Night” in which he showed video of the recent destruction of two Russian vessels near Crimea by underwater drones.

The ability to target Russian ships in that way has helped Ukraine establish and maintain a vital grain-shipping corridor since summer, defying Moscow. 

“The drone fleet has opened Ukraine to the grain corridor in the Black Sea,” Fedorov said. Bloomberg News reported in December that Russia was moving more of its Black Sea naval fleet out of harm’s way after Ukrainian strikes near Crimea. 

Read more: Putin risks losing vital naval hub as Ukraine strikes in Crimea  

Investment in drones by Ukraine has stepped up following evidence of their success on the battlefield.

A coalition of Ukraine’s allies has pledged to deliver one million drones within a year, while the UK and other nations plan to provide new AI-enabled UAVs that could swarm Russian targets simultaneously, Bloomberg reported on Saturday. 

Russia has attacked Ukraine with thousands of Iranian-made Shahed drones during its two-year invasion, often paired with ballistic and cruise missile barrages.

One of the products shown at an “Innovation Night” in Munich was a 3D-printed drone interceptor developed by the startup Tytan Technologies to combat the cheap and plentiful Shahed UAVs.

“The military is shooting down these drones with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, which cost millions,” Tytan CEO Balazs Nagy told an audience of investors, inventors and military personnel.  

Artificial intelligence was another central theme at the annual gathering, where enthusiasm about the potential of the technology was balanced by concern about how bad actors may exploit it. 

Discussions on the dangers of AI in cyberspace and on social media drew large crowds, with technology companies announcing measures to detect deepfakes around elections and Google presenting new tools to use AI to bolster online defences.   

EU should sell joint bonds to boost European defence – Estonian PM 

The European Union should work on a plan to issue €100-billion in Eurobonds to boost the continent’s defence industry, and in the meantime do more to get weapons to Ukraine, Estonia’s prime minister said. 

Kaja Kallas told Bloomberg in an interview at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday that the next European Commission, following elections in June, should take a similar, unified approach to security as the current one did when it tackled the Covid pandemic.

“We are in a place where we need to invest more and [explore] what we can do together, because the bonds that would be issued by separate countries individually are too small to scale up,” she said. “Eurobonds could have a much bigger impact.” 

The idea of exploring joint borrowing to ramp up the continent’s defence capabilities has also been backed by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel. More frugal nations such as the Netherlands and Germany are likely to be less keen.

Boosting Europe’s defences and finding new ways to back Kyiv in its war against Russia dominated discussions at the Munich conference that wrapped up on Sunday.  

Read more about the Munich Security Conference:

Failure to back Ukraine aid could hurt US economy, says Germany

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius urged US legislators to approve additional military aid for Ukraine stalled in Congress, warning that failure to do so could damage the US’s economic interests.

As well as potentially hindering security cooperation and harming US defence contractors, Kremlin aggression if left unchallenged could also weaken Europe more broadly and disrupt the bloc’s trading relationship with the world’s biggest economy, Pistorius said in an interview on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference.

“One aspect among many others of our transatlantic cooperation is that we signed hundreds of contracts worth billions of dollars and we are about to prepare new contracts,” he said. “It’s obvious that the alliance for security brings many advantages — for both sides.” 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other Western leaders have mostly focused on political and strategic arguments in justifying their calls for additional US military aid for Ukraine.

Now Pistorius — a member of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party — is striking a different tone by highlighting potential pain for the US’s defence contractors if more US support fails to materialise.

Germany is increasingly concerned about such a scenario. Attempts to unlock the latest aid package worth more than $60-billion have been stuck for months, prompting increasingly urgent appeals from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as supplies of ammunition and other materiel dwindle.  

Germany is ramping up defence spending following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and a significant proportion of the investments from a debt-financed €100-billion special fund are flowing to the US defence industry. 

Pistorius warned of the consequences of a Ukrainian defeat, not only for Europe but also for the US, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion was a threat to the “rules-based international order”.

“Geographically, Europe is far away from Iowa or Wisconsin, but still it’s very close in terms of security policy,” he told Bloomberg. “Less security in Europe means less security for the United States,” he added. “We shouldn’t take freedom for granted. We have to defend it. We have to fight for it if necessary.”

Germany has been pushing its European neighbours to deliver more weapons to Ukraine and Pistorius said that he has seen evidence of commitments picking up. 

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday pledged additional assistance worth as much as €3-billion for this year after signing a bilateral security agreement with Zelensky in Paris.

Earlier in the day, Zelensky had signed a similar agreement in Berlin, where Scholz unveiled a new €1.1-billion package of air defence and artillery systems, part of a total German commitment of around €28-billion. 

Biden says Ukrainian city’s fall shows impact of aid delays

President Joe Biden blamed US legislators’ failure to approve emergency aid to Ukraine for the fall of Avdiivka, which handed Russia a significant battlefield victory after months of fighting for control of the city.

Biden said he called Zelensky on Saturday “to let him know I’m confident we’re going to get that money”, while warning that more Ukrainian cities might fall if Congress didn’t approve the funding.

“There’s so much on the line,” Biden told reporters near his home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. “The idea that now we’re running out of ammunition — to walk away, I find it absurd. I find it unethical. So I’m going to fight to get them the ammunition they need.”

Attempts to unlock emergency foreign aid to US allies have been stuck in a partisan deadlock in Congress for months, leaving Biden and Zelensky to make increasingly urgent appeals for Congress to move forward as Ukrainian supplies run low.

Ukraine was forced to withdraw from Avdiivka after its “soldiers had to ration ammunition due to dwindling supplies as a result of congressional inaction, resulting in Russia’s first notable gains in months”, the White House said in a statement after Biden’s call to Zelensky.  

The US Senate last week approved $95-billion in assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after months of delay, but the legislation still faces formidable obstacles in the Republican-led House of Representatives. 

Ukraine’s military said earlier on Saturday it was withdrawing from Avdiivka, the same day that Zelensky addressed an annual conference of military and foreign-policy leaders in Munich. He told the meeting that Ukraine was withdrawing to save lives

Avdiivka, an industrial satellite city located just north of Donetsk — a regional capital under de-facto Kremlin control since 2014 — has been battered by bombardment and heavy fighting since spring 2022. 

Losing the city, once home to 30,000 people, adds to problems for Ukraine’s political and military leadership, which is also struggling with a lack of soldiers and war fatigue. DM

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