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UKRAINE UPDATE: 8 MAY 2024

Russian plot to assassinate Zelensky foiled – state security; Russia ‘using TikTok’ to undermine Kyiv morale

Russian plot to assassinate Zelensky foiled – state security; Russia ‘using TikTok’ to undermine Kyiv morale
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Hollie Adams / Pool)

Ukrainian authorities said they foiled a plot to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky and other high-ranking officials, making the announcement on the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in Moscow.

Ukraine warned the Kremlin was expanding its use of TikTok to question the legitimacy of Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency and undermine the nation’s morale as Russia presses its advantage in cyberspace as well as on the battlefield. 

The European Union has proposed restrictions on 11 vessels that contribute to Russia’s ability to sustain its war against Ukraine. 

Ukraine arrests two in Zelensky assassination plot

Ukrainian authorities said they foiled a plot to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky and other high-ranking officials, making the announcement on the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in Moscow.

Two colonels with Ukraine’s Department of State Security, a special unit responsible for protecting government officials, had been detained on suspicion of high treason, the Prosecutor-General’s office said on Tuesday on its website. One of the suspects is also accused of helping to organise an act of terrorism. 

“The terrorist attack, which was supposed to become a present to Putin on his inauguration, has turned into a failure of the Russian special service,” Vasyl Malyuk, the head of Ukraine’s State Security Service, said in a statement. 

The officers were involved in the plan to assassinate Zelensky as well as the head of Ukraine’s Security Service, or SBU, Vasyl Malyuk and Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, according to the statement. 

It’s not the first time that Zelensky and his key officials may have been the target of an assassination attempt since Russia’s full-scale invasion began more than two years ago. The Ukrainian president told The Sun newspaper in November that his intelligence services had foiled at least five plots to kill him.

Poland’s prosecutors said last month they had arrested a Polish citizen on suspicion of assisting with an alleged plot to assassinate Zelensky. The man was charged with declaring his readiness to help Russian military intelligence collect information about the security of Rzeszow-Jasionka airport, the main stopover point for officials travelling to and from Ukraine.

Kyiv says Russian operatives dominating on TikTok in Ukraine

Ukraine warned the Kremlin was expanding its use of TikTok to question the legitimacy of Zelensky’s presidency and undermine the nation’s morale as Russia presses its advantage in cyberspace as well as on the battlefield. 

Russia’s legions of influencers and bots are behind a series of viral TikTok videos that zero in on May 20 — the date that Zelensky’s first term would have ended if the country’s election cycle hadn’t been disrupted because of martial law, according to Andriy Kovalenko, a senior official focused on Russia’s wartime dissemination of false information. 

“Russia is dominating us on TikTok due to the scale” of its operation, Kovalenko, who leads a department under the National Security and Defense Council, said in an interview in Kyiv. “The Russians have begun working systematically on TikTok and are utilising this platform successfully.” 

As Russia leverages its advantage in ammunition and manpower to exploit Ukraine’s dwindling stocks of weaponry, it has also increasingly embraced TikTok as part of its parallel information war. The social media app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance is part of an arsenal that includes other platforms such as Telegram and X, formerly known as Twitter. 

TikTok has increased safety and security measures in Ukraine since the start of the war and removes harmful misinformation, according to a TikTok spokesperson. Globally, 97% of misinformation content is removed before it is flagged to the platform, the spokesperson said.

Ukraine’s criticism comes as ByteDance is under increasing pressure from the US and European Union due to concerns over data security and misinformation.  

US President Joe Biden signed a law last month that requires ByteDance to divest the service or face a ban out of concern that China’s government could use the app for propaganda or spying on US residents. 

In the EU, regulators have also scrutinised the app. TikTok has said it’ll launch a local language feature in all 27 member states of the bloc to curb misinformation ahead of elections this year. 

The US government and the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, are among institutions that already ban the app from official devices. Yet politicians including Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz operate accounts on the platform in an attempt to reach a younger audience that gravitates to the service, which boasts more than a billion users. 

Russian actors are skilled at manipulating TikTok, according to Kovalenko. They create fake accounts with Ukrainian SIM cards or manipulate geographic-location technology to appear to be in Ukraine, and can game TikTok’s algorithms to reach a wider base of users, he said. 

Russians are coming to terms with Putin’s war in Ukraine

Russians are learning to live with the war that Vladimir Putin has unleashed in Ukraine.

With Putin being sworn in on Tuesday for another six years as president, the invasion has become part of everyday life for many Russians, confounding expectations that the pressure of international sanctions and deepening isolation would eventually turn them against him. Far from protesting, many are rallying around the flag.

The Kremlin is using Europe’s biggest conflict since World War 2 to reshape Russia, combining strident nationalism involving a potent mix of Soviet-era and imperial nostalgia with an intensifying crackdown on dissent. As a result, Putin faces little domestic pressure to end the fighting despite massive military casualties, posing a challenge for Ukraine’s US and European allies as they seek to raise the cost for Russia of continuing the war that’s now in its third year.

That’s in sharp contrast to the first months after the February 2022 invasion when many Russians reacted with anger, depression and shock, according to Anna Kuleshova, a sociologist at the Social Foresight Group who left Russia when the war started and now lives in Luxembourg. 

“When there is no way out of a situation with dignity, there is no way to leave, and there is a need to earn money and raise children, then it’s easier to accept a new reality than to resist it endlessly,” Kuleshova said. 

The war has permeated every level of Russian society. In many schools, children send gifts and letters to frontline soldiers and must attend special lessons where teachers drum home the Kremlin’s message that the country is at war with the West in Ukraine and acted to defend itself by carrying out the unprovoked invasion.   

TV and radio shows are often filled with war themes, casting those fighting in Ukraine as successors of the generation that defeated the Nazi German invasion in the “Great Patriotic War,” ignoring the fact that Russia is the aggressor this time. Army recruitment campaigns offer lucrative signing bonuses and salaries for those who’ll “be a man” and join up as contract soldiers. 

Sanctions failed “to create enough economic discomfort at the personal level, to expose to Russians the link between the wars they launch and the erosion of their own wellbeing,” said Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The impact on Russians’ living standards was “too small to radically change the public mood”, she said. 

Indeed, as Russia adjusted to the unprecedented sanctions that failed to collapse its economy, many Russians found a financial upside to the war. Deepening labour shortages exacerbated by the military’s demand for recruits have added to spiralling wage pressures as businesses hike salaries to retain staff or fill vacancies. 

Russia’s war economy is growing strongly for now as the government pours money into the defence industry and seeks to shield domestic businesses from the impact of sanctions. The Kremlin continues to reap income from oil and gas sales, pivoting to countries such as India and China after Europe shunned Russian energy. 

Still, Russia is using up reserves in its national wealth fund to support surging state expenditure, while inflation is running at almost twice the central bank’s 4% target. The Bank of Russia has hiked the key interest rate to 16% and the government has imposed capital controls to ease pressure on the rouble. 

Polls show public support for Putin remains high, with 87% approving of his leadership and 76% backing Russia’s army in Ukraine in a March survey.  

EU aims to target 11 Russian ships involved in sanctions-busting

The European Union has proposed restrictions on 11 vessels that contribute to Russia’s ability to sustain its war against Ukraine.

The proposed measures, if approved by member states, would ban the ships from accessing EU ports and anchorage zones, and complicate the logistics of operating them by barring them from using European companies for an array of services. 

The vessels being targeted include four fuel tankers, two crude tankers, two gas-storage units used in Novatek’s future project to transship liquefied natural gas on the Kamchatka peninsula, and a cargo ship. One is a tanker named Andromeda Star, which suffered a crash while in the Baltic Sea and was found to have invalid European insurance when Bloomberg sought information about its documentation under a Freedom of Information request to Danish authorities.

The proposals are part of the EU’s efforts to crack down on Moscow’s ability to circumvent a price cap on Russian oil through the use of a shadow fleet and to constrain the activity of vessels involved in the transport of goods generating revenue for Russia’s war machine, especially in sanctioned sectors.

The ban would apply to insurance and technical assistance including “bunkering, ship supply services, crew changes services, cargo loading and discharge services, fendering and tug services”, according to a draft document seen by Bloomberg. European providers would also be prohibited from engaging in ship-to-ship transfers, the draft says. 

Putin sworn in for new term amid growing conflict with West

Vladimir Putin, who’s ruled Russia for the whole of the 21st century so far, was sworn in for a fifth term as president, amid renewed nuclear sabre-rattling with the West over his war in Ukraine.

Placing his hand on a copy of Russia’s constitution, Putin took the oath of office at his inauguration on Tuesday in the golden imperial splendour of the Kremlin’s St Andrew’s Hall.

Russians “have confirmed the correctness of the country’s course. This is of great importance right now, when we are facing serious challenges,” he told assembled officials and dignitaries. Russia was willing to engage in dialogue with the West, “but only on equal terms, respecting each other’s interests”, Putin said. 

Already the longest-serving Kremlin ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, 71-year-old Putin begins another six-year term after gaining a record 87% in March’s tightly controlled presidential election in which he faced no serious competition. He’s embroiled in a deepening confrontation with the US and its allies, which have sent Ukraine tens of billions of dollars of weapons to defend itself against Russia’s 2022 invasion that sparked Europe’s worst conflict since World War 2.

Read more: How Putin ensured Russia’s longest rule since Stalin: QuickTake

The inauguration ceremony took place a day after Putin ordered the military to conduct combat drills for using tactical nuclear weapons in response to what Russia called “provocative” statements by Western leaders.  

Pentagon says US soldier held in Russia went for ‘personal reasons’

The US soldier detained on criminal charges in eastern Russia — adding to the tally of Americans held in the country during a low point in relations with Washington — flew there “for personal reasons” and without official authorization, the US Army said on Tuesday.

Staff Sergeant Gordon Black (34) had been assigned to the Eighth Army, based at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, and was set to change duty stations to Fort Cavazos in Texas, Army spokesperson Cynthia Smith said. He processed out of the Eighth Army on 10 April, signing out on leave. But instead of returning to the US, he flew from South Korea’s Incheon Airport to Vladivostok, Russia, via China.

“Black did not request official clearance, and [the Department of Defense] did not authorise his travel to China and Russia,” Smith said, noting restrictions currently in place on both official and leave travel. “There is no evidence Black intended to remain in Russia” after his leave ended, she said.

A Russian interior ministry official informed the US embassy in Moscow on 3 May that Black had been arrested a day before for “theft of personal property”, Smith said, without providing further details. The sergeant is being held in pretrial detention, where he will remain until his next hearing.

An Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, confirmed an NBC report that Black had travelled to Russia to visit a girlfriend in the country. DM

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