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Ukraine war latest: Ukraine to create separate military branch dedicated to drones

by The Kyiv Independent news desk February 7, 2024 1:18 AM 7 min read
Ukrainian military practice flying drones at night using thermal vision in Lviv Oblast on May 11, 2023. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
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Key developments on Feb. 6:

  • Zelensky: Ukrainian military to create separate branch dedicated to drones
  • SBU uncovers alleged Russian spy network, including Ukrainian intelligence officers
  • Russian media: Output of Russian oil refineries drops by 4% following drone attacks
  • Defense Ministry: Ukrainian special forces capture Russian equipment from Black Sea drilling platform
  • Official: Situation in Avdiivka becomes 'critical in some places'

President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree creating a separate branch of Ukraine's Armed Forces dedicated to drones, he said in his evening address on Feb. 6.

The Unmanned Systems Forces will reportedly focus specifically on improving Ukraine's work with drones, creating special drone-specific units, ramping up training, systemizing their use, increasing production, and pushing innovation.

According to the President's Office, the division will aim to "increase the capabilities of Ukraine's Armed Forces and to use unmanned and robotic air, sea, and ground systems."

"This year should be decisive in many aspects – and, obviously, on the battlefield," Zelensky said. "Drones – unmanned systems – have proven their effectiveness in battles on land, in the sky, and at sea."

"Ukraine has really changed the security situation in the Black Sea thanks to drones. Repelling assaults on the ground is largely the work of drones. The large-scale destruction of the (Russian) occupiers and their equipment is (also due to) drones."

Zelensky noted that the branch's creation will be undertaken by the military, the Defense Ministry, and the government as a whole.

The announcement comes as Ukraine seeks to introduce new military strategies in 2024, specifically with an increased emphasis on air defense. Over recent weeks, the government has highlighted the need for expanded air defense capabilities from its Western partners.

At a press conference in Vilnius earlier this year, Zelensky stated that Ukraine currently lacks the ability to produce its own modern air defense system, something that it desperately needs to protect its citizens from Russian strikes.

Zelensky pointed to the mass strikes across Ukraine at the end of December and the start of the month, which hit "civil infrastructure, people, kindergartens."

Sufficient air defense systems are therefore the "number one" thing that is missing in Ukraine right now, Zelensky said.

Late last month, following his announcement in Vilnius, Zelensky confirmed that agreements are in place to begin joint production of weapons and ammunition, including drones within the country.

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SBU uncovers alleged Russian spy network, including Ukrainian intelligence officers

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) had detained five individuals, including former and current officials of Ukraine's intelligence services, allegedly working for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in various regions of Ukraine, the SBU's press service reported on Feb. 6.

The suspects were allegedly tasked with passing intelligence about Ukraine's military and strategically important energy facilities to the FSB. They were managed by an FSB handler based in Russian-occupied Crimea, the SBU said.

"The group included former officials of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense (HUR, the military intelligence agency), the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine (SZRU), and a regional SBU department employee," the SBU said.

According to the SBU's statement, the suspects were provided with financial rewards in return for their work. The FSB also used threats to kill the suspects' families to ensure their cooperation, the SBU said.

A former foreign intelligence officer was recruited by the FSB before Russia's full-scale invasion, while he was still working at the intelligence agency, according to the SBU.

"Since then, he has been gathering information about locations of Ukrainian military bases, and after Feb. 24, 2022, about channels for delivering foreign weapons to Ukraine," the statement read.

The suspect also allegedly passed secret information about the security systems at the Rivne and Khmelnytskyi nuclear power plants to the FSB.

"He passed intelligence to the FSB through an accomplice who traveled abroad as a volunteer and personally reported to the FSB handler," the SBU said. "He passed especially sensitive information on a flash drive via smugglers from border areas of Ukraine."

Another suspected spy, who previously served at the military intelligence agency, allegedly leaked personal data of Ukrainian soldiers.

The last suspect, an SBU employee, scouted locations of fortifications and engineering barriers near the Black Sea coastline, the SBU said.

The suspects had already been detained on the charges of high treason.

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Russian media: Output of Russian oil refineries drop by 4% following drone attacks

Russian oil refineries reduced refining operations by 4% in January 2024 compared to the same period the year before, partly due to "increased drone attacks," the Russian state-controlled media outlet Kommersant reported on Feb. 6, citing "sources familiar with industry statistics."

Multiple drone strikes have been reported on oil depots and refineries in Russia in January, including Bryansk, Oryol, and Leningrad oblasts, amid increasing claims of drones targeting Russian energy infrastructure.

According to Kommersant, an attack on an oil refinery in Tuapse in Krasnodar Krai on the night of Jan. 25 caused a 30% drop in output soon after. Local residents reported seeing multiple drones flying over the region before and after the fire at the oil depot.

The attacks contributed to the Russian energy company Rosneft reporting a 10% drop in oil refining compared to a year earlier, Kommersant said.

However, other refineries, such as those owned by Bashneft, a company controlled by Rosneft, increased refining output by 13%, Kommersant noted.

Bloomberg reported on Jan. 23 that Russian seaborne crude oil exports hit their lowest level in two months in the wake of an alleged attack on the Novatek gas plant near Saint Petersburg overnight on Jan. 21.

Novatek is Russia's largest independent natural gas producer and exports oil products to international markets.

A fire also broke out at the Volgograd oil refinery overnight on Feb. 3. The local authorities claimed the fire started when a downed drone fell onto the site of the refinery.

Ukrainian authorities rarely comment on attacks on Russian soil.

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Defense Ministry: Ukrainian special forces capture Russian equipment from Black Sea drilling platform

Ukraine's Special Operations Forces conducted an operation on a Russian-occupied drilling platform off the coast of Crimea, the Defense Ministry reported on Feb. 6.

Ukraine frequently claims responsibility for attacks on Russian military assets occupying Crimea and around its coast.

Russian forces used the drilling platform to control part of the Black Sea and adjust fire toward southern Ukraine.

According to a video published by the Special Operations Forces, soldiers landed on the platform and searched for equipment, including radar and a drone signal enhancing system.

After taking the equipment, the group installed mines on the platform and retreated, according to the video. The antenna mast of the platform was blown up.

Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said on Feb. 1 that Ukraine has certain "tools" at its disposal that means it can strike Russian military targets occupying Crimea "methodologically and regularly."

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Official: Situation in Avdiivka becomes 'critical in some places'

The situation around Avdiivka, a besieged front-line town in Donetsk Oblast, is becoming "very difficult," even critical in some areas, Vitalii Barabash, the head of the city's military administration, said on Feb. 6.

Russia intensified its attacks against Avdiivka in October 2023, reportedly suffering heavy losses in an attempt to encircle the city mere kilometers from occupied Donetsk. In spite of the casualties, reports began emerging recently that Russian forces are making steady advances.

"The situation is very difficult, very tense. We could say that a few weeks ago, the situation was difficult but (still) under control," Barabash said on air.

The official added that this does not mean "that everything is lost" but stressed that Russia continues throwing large forces against Avdiivka.

The General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said in its Feb. 6 morning report that over the past day, Ukrainian troops repelled 29 attacks near Avdiivka and near Novobakhmutivka, a village roughly 14 kilometers to the northwest.

The U.K. Defense Ministry said on Jan. 27 that despite Russian advances, the city is unlikely to fall in the coming weeks as Ukraine maintains its key supply route.

In its Feb. 4 assessment, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that Moscow's troops recently advanced east of Avdiivka, moving up along the H-20 highway.

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