We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Kyiv. Alamy Stock Photo

Kyiv says it shot down Russian balloons as Zelenskyy says troops 'firmly holding' Bakhmut

The Ukrainian president said the situation in the eastern town was the “most difficult” on the frontline.

UKRAINE HAS SAID its aerial defence units had detected half a dozen balloons, apparently launched by Russia, over the capital Kyiv and shot most of them down.

Kyiv authorities said the balloons could carry reconnaissance equipment and were launched to “detect and exhaust our air defence forces.”

“Most of the probes have been shot down,” the city administration said in a statement, adding authorities would carefully examine the debris.

The presence of the balloons in the sky prompted sirens to go off in the Ukrainian capital, which usually happens when missiles are approaching.

Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said that Russia uses balloons to exhaust Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles.

“The Russians will use all available methods of warfare to achieve their goals,” he told AFP.

“Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that these devices can conduct some kind of surveillance, so it is important to see what they are and understand them.”

Since the start of the Russian invasion last February, Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly reported Russian balloons drifting in the country’s airspace.

On Tuesday, neighbouring Moldova temporarily closed its airspace due to the presence of a flying object resembling a weather balloon amid heightened tensions with Moscow.

The United States has been in a state of alarm since a huge white balloon from China was spotted tracking over a series of top secret nuclear weapons sites, before being shot down off the east coast in early February.

‘Fortress Bakhmut’

Earlier today, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the situation near the east town of Bakhmut was the “most difficult” on the front line, but Ukrainian troops were holding back Russia’s advances.

“The situation in Bakhmut is the most difficult on the territory of our country,” Zelenskyy told a news conference with visiting Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

“It’s not easy for our soldiers in the east but they don’t call it ‘fortress Bakhmut’ for nothing,” he said, adding that Ukrainian forces were “firmly holding” their positions.

food-for-idps-kharkiv Volunteers of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society, who evacuate people from areas affected by Russian shelling, treat internally displaced persons to porridge in Kharkiv. ABACA / PA Images ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

Zelenskyy also singled out Vugledar, a town south of Bakhmut that has recently seen heavy fighting.

In his evening address on Tuesday, Zelenskyy had said the situation on the eastern front was “extremely difficult”.

Bakhmut has been at the centre of months of heavy fighting in Russia’s nearly year-long offensive in Ukraine, with both sides suffering heavy losses.

The Swedish prime minister said Stockholm would continue to “provide as much support as possible politically” to Ukraine.

Referring to fighter jets that Kyiv has been urging allies to deliver, Kristersson said: “We don’t exclude anything right now.

“But at the same time we also acknowledge the fact that we need an international coalition to take further steps,” he added.

Today, the governor of the eastern region of Lugansk, which is largely under Russian control, reported an “escalation” near the settlements of Kreminna and Bilogorivka.

Sergiy Gaidai said Russian troops were attacking in “waves” with air support.

In the eastern town of Pokrovsk, strikes hit a residential building today, killing at least one person and injuring 12 others, emergency services said.

“At least two other people remain under the rubble,” rescuers said.

NATO meeting

In Brussels, NATO members resumed debate on the thorny issue of ramping up national defence spending targets after Russia’s war on Ukraine upended security.

Moscow’s nearly year-long all-out invasion of its neighbour has seen a string of European allies commit to spending billions more on their armed forces.

Some at the US-led Western military alliance are now pushing to enshrine the increases by using an upcoming summit in Vilnius in July to raise NATO’s current target of two percent of GDP.

Most NATO members appear to agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression means that 2% should become a “floor, not a ceiling” for national spending.

“I believe that simply wanting to approach the two percent target will not be enough. It must be the basis for everything else,” German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius told a meeting of NATO counterparts in Brussels today.

belgium-nato-stoltenberg NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a press conference following a meeting of NATO Defence ministers in Brussels. Valeria Mongelli / PA Valeria Mongelli / PA / PA

But some nations are reluctant to make the target too ambitious or the commitment too concrete.

“The two percent is okay, but we must also guarantee that we have some flexibility because the countries are different,” said Luxembourg’s Defence Minister Francois Bausch.

The alliance set the 2% guideline around 16 years ago, but the 2007-2008 economic crisis saw many cut budgets.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 led allies to promise to halt years of decline and “move towards” two percent by 2024.

Across the alliance spending has increased, but despite pressure from the United States for European members to spend more, as of last year only nine of the 30 allies were estimated to have made the grade.

‘Increasers’ vs ‘deniers’

A senior US official said the alliance was split into several camps

At one end were the “increasers”, such as the Baltic states and Poland, closer in proximity to Russia and pushing for a more ambitious level such as 2.5%.

At the other were the “deniers”, such as Canada, Italy, Luxembourg and Spain, which argue they are too small or that contributions such as overseas operations should be taken into account.

The official said the United States did not have a specific new figure in mind, but there was a lot to do as NATO pushes to restructure its forces, replenish depleted weapons stockpiles and modernise equipment.

“Taken together, I think the obvious conclusion is two percent is not enough,” the official said.

“I’d say that’s where the majority of the allies are.”

Washington is by far the biggest military spender, representing approximately two thirds of the alliance’s defence spending.

NATO diplomats say the wrangling over any new defence investment pledge – which requires the consensus of all allies – was expected to run right up to the summit in mid-July.

European heavyweight France also backed the two-percent minimum but said additional spending must be well focused.

“What counts is two percent of useful and effective spending,” said Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said: “What is obvious is that if it was right to commit to spend two percent in 2014, it is even more right now we live in a more dangerous world.

“There is a full-fledged war going on in, in Ukraine in Europe, and then we see the persistent threat of terrorism and we see also the challenges that China is posing.”

He insisted NATO members “should move from regarding the two percent as a ceiling to regarding the two percent as a floor of GDP”.

© AFP 2023

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel