IT’S quite clearly an attempt to test Ukrainian resolve in the cold winter months. For many weeks now, Russia’s missile and kamikaze drone campaign has targeted Ukraine’s power infrastructure, but the intensity of last Friday’s strikes was unprecedented.

Such was the scale of the Russian ­onslaught that UKrenergo, the state power company declared a “system ­emergency” and nationwide “blackout,” citing a ­staggering 50% loss of power within Ukraine’s electricity system.

With at least 70 rockets fired at several regions, the country’s second largest city Kharkiv was left without power. In the capital Kyiv, Ukrainian air defence said it had had shot down 37 of about 40 ­missiles that entered the city’s airspace.

According to Ukraine’s Commander-in-chief General Valeriy Zaluzhny, these latest waves of strikes are all part of a ­Russian delaying action to regroup ahead of new ground offensives early next year designed to swallow up Ukrainian ­territory.

In a telling interview with The ­Economist magazine, Zaluzhny, outlined what he saw as the two main strategic ­priorities now for Ukrainian forces. The first he said was “to hold this line and not lose any more ground”.

The National: A tax office building heavily damaged by Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine

“It’s crucial. Because I know that it is 10 to 15 times harder to liberate it than not to surrender it,” said Zaluzhny, ­adding that with the help of “our ­partners” Ukraine needs to monitor what is going on and the preparations Russia is making, which includes the deployment of some 200,000 fresh troops.

The second strategic task he said was for Ukraine to create reserves and ­prepare for the forthcoming Russian ­counter-offensive, which “may take place in February, at best in March and at worst at the end of January”.

“Our troops are all tied up in battles now, they are bleeding. They are ­bleeding and are being held together solely by courage, heroism and the ability of their commanders to keep the situation under control,” Zaluzhny admitted in the interview, saying he did not rule out another attempt to take Kyiv by Russian forces.

But despite the Ukrainian capital over the last few days suffering one of the ­largest missile strikes since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February, some analysts doubt that Moscow is capable of mounting a new ground offensive against Kyiv early next year.

Even with the capacity of these ­hundreds of thousands of fresh troops military experts remains convinced that they will not be sufficiently trained or equipped to attempt another storming of Kyiv.

“Such an offensive does not appear very probable to me, but it’s not impossible at the same time,” independent Russian military analyst Alexander Khamchikhin told the AFP news agency.

Others believe that Russian forces are suffering from serious supply and ­ammunition constraints all of which make Ukrainian Commander-in-chief General Zaluzhny’s warnings of a ­forthcoming counteroffensive either ­premature or aimed at sending out another kind of ­message.

Pascal Ausseur, director of the ­Mediterranean Foundation for ­Strategic Studies, a France-based think-tank, said he believed the Ukrainian claims of an imminent offensive were an effort to ­concentrate minds in Western capitals.

“The Ukrainians are shouting ‘keep helping us, don’t let us down’,” Ausseur told AFP. “These statements are destined for the West to say, ‘we can still lose ­everything’.”

This weekend however these longer-term strategic and political concerns were overshadowed by more immediate issues as Ukrainians sought to overcome the ­effects of Russia’s latest bombardment of its infrastructure.

The National: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the city of Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Our letter writer is not in support of the war - what is your view?

In what has become a familiar ­display of dogged determination to repair ­damage done as quickly as possible, ­reports ­indicate that power grid ­operator ­Ukrenergo has lifted the state of ­emergency it declared earlier on Friday.

“Priority will be given to critical ­infrastructure: hospitals, water supply facilities, heat supply facilities, sewage treatment plants,” the national energy provider said in a statement but warned it could take longer to restore electricity more widely.

That so few Russian missiles and drones made it past Ukrainian air defences is testament to their increasing effectiveness. But analysts note that Kyiv is burning through its ammunition for these Soviet-era systems at a rapid rate and as stockpiles dwindle calls urging western backers to provide for more modern Nato-standard surface-to-air systems are sure to increase.

That very point was driven home by Ukrainian president Volodymyr ­Zelenskyy (above) on Friday after he assured those watching that Ukraine was strong enough to bounce back. To date such However, in the coming weeks and months, Ukrainian resolve has been underscored time and again but the coming weeks and months will be tested to new levels.


The National: Fens Falconry provides a range of experiences and education packages.

TODAY much of the world’s attention will of course be on the Gulf state of Qatar. But as the final of international football’s biggest competition between Argentina and France gets underway few viewers tuning in will be aware of that other “sporting” passion currently gripping Qatar.

Long before football fever swept the country another sport has been flying high. And so, it has been throughout centuries for the long-winged and short-winged in this world of lures, snares, jesses, hoods and blocks.

The language of the Arabian falconer, like that of his counterparts across the globe, is as time-worn and universal as the sport of hawking itself.

Never mind today’s songs and chants from the stadium terraces, for centuries, Arabs across the region have used falcons to hunt and recited poems extolling their virtues.

Falconry is a big thing among the sporting fraternity in the Gulf states, especially in Qatar. While falconry pales alongside football in term of big money, buying the finest birds can command vast sums with prices of US$20,000 not uncommon, and some fetching as much as US$250,000.

In recent years the popularity of falconry has soared as Qatari citizens and long-time Arab residents see rising value in cultural holdovers from a time before the region was an oil-rich hub and centre of international business.

Some years ago, at the Wigtown Book Festival, I was fortunate enough to meet the British Arabist and former MI6 spymaster, Sir Mark Allen. Later, while researching an article on Arabian falconry, it was to his detailed and fascinating books that I turned.

Since he was 14, hawking has played an enormous part in Allen’s life, allowing him at one time as a Westerner to become accepted and to live and hunt with the Bedouin nomadic tribesmen of the Arabian desert.

“With the camel, the Arab horse, the black hair tent and the Saluki (Persian greyhound), the hawk is a symbol of the desert Arab’s way of life ... which he has cherished through all the traumatic changes of the last few generations.”

Today, Qatar – like the other Gulf states – is a very much-changed place but not in every respect as certain controversies surrounding the World Cup have shown.

Falconry however perhaps tells us more about Qatar’s relationship with the past, just as football does with the present.

Burkina Faso

THEY already have an unsavoury reputation for furthering Russia’s military interests around the world. From Ukraine, Syria and Libya to the Central African Republic, Mali, and elsewhere, they have plied their trade on the Kremlin’s behalf.

But according to reports that emerged over the past few days, the troubled West African nation of Burkina Faso has allegedly become the latest country in Africa to contract Russia’s mercenaries.

“Today, Russian mercenaries are on our northern border,” Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo told Antony Blinken (below), US secretary of state, in Washington during a US-Africa summit last week.

The National: Antony Blinken

No sooner had Akufo-Addo made the allegations than Burkina Faso summoned the Ghanaian ambassador on Friday for “explanations” and an almighty diplomatic row gained momentum.

Currently, Burkina Faso is facing an Islamist insurgency by some of the same groups that are present in Mali, and like its neighbour is ruled by a military junta. The soldier in charge in Burkina Faso is Ibrahim Traore who seized power in September and told US diplomats at the time he would not recruit Russian mercenaries.

However, since the coup that brought Traore to power, Burkinabes have repeatedly demonstrated on the streets waving Russian flags, a country with which they want their new leader to intensify relations. So far, there has been no independent verification of Ghana’s claims, but the prospect of Wagner expanding its presence in Africa has troubled Western powers such as France and the United States, who say the group exploits mineral resources and commits human rights abuses in countries where it operates.

While Akufo-Addo’s allegations that the Burkina’s military government had “entered into an arrangement” to employ Wagner forces to deal with a widening jihadist insurgency is controversial enough, his additional claim is the one that has set alarm bells ringing in certain western intelligence and security circles.

“I believe a mine in southern Burkina has been allocated to them as a form of payment for their services,” the Ghanaian president claimed.

According to a statement earlier this month from Burkina Faso’s Council of Ministers, a permit for industrial exploration was granted to the Nordgold Yimiougou SA company in Sanmatenga province in the Centre North region.

With Burkina Faso already one of the largest gold producers on the continent, the four-year agreement is estimated to contribute some $US8 billion to the state budget.

Both Nordgold and the Wagner Group are Russian companies, and, while there is no known connection between them, Western powers will be keeping an extra vigilant eye on Burkina Faso in light of Ghana’s latest allegations.


IT was 12 years ago to the day yesterday that street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. It was an act of protest which quickly became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring against autocratic regimes.

Yesterday, Tunisia went to the polls in a parliamentary election that tightened President Kais Saied’s (below) grip on power, capping what his opponents denounce as a march to one-man rule over a country that shook off dictatorship back in those heady days of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The National: Tunisian President Kais Saied (Slim Abid/AP)

While 64-year-old Saied might have been democratically elected by a landslide in 2019, he has since made clear that he did not approve of political parties or parliamentary democracy and wanted more authority vested in the office of the president.

It now almost 17 months since Saied suspended Tunisia’s assembly, seized virtually all powers and began ruling by decree.

In the intervening period he has purged judges and some state employees with political ties and issued a law imposing prison terms for spreading false information or rumours online, denounced by the main journalists’ union as an assault on free speech.

While Saied might be a populist figure many Tunisians are deeply concerned as to what lies ahead in the wake of yesterday’s election, among them Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first president after the 2011 revolution.

“Once again, (it is) the rule of one man, all the power gathered by one man,” Marzouki said. “And this is exactly what we didn’t want after the revolution … The will of one man has destroyed Iraq, has destroyed Syria, has destroyed Libya.

“This guy, he’s coming back to the old political system, and he will face the same problems faced by his predecessors, because one man cannot rule a nation,” Marzouki warned in an interview with Al-Jazeera ahead of yesterday’s election.

But not all Tunisians agree with such a negative assessment with some, including Saied’s supporters, insisting that the likes of Marzouki and other political figures who dominated the post-2011 years, oversaw what they refer to as the “black decade”, and that change was necessary.

Yesterday there were reports of a “dull” atmosphere in the capital Tunis in an election that saw many political parties boycotting a ballot they view as little more than a presidential power grab.

Saied might so far have basked in a stated conviction that he represented the will of the people, but no one really knows how much backing he will continue to enjoy as economic hardship mounts in Tunisia.

“One of the things that people are waiting to see is if the election will be the opportunity for some really concerted economic planning and policy making,” was how Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, summed up what lies ahead to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing inside the record so far that suggests that Saied is going to take the opportunity to do that.”

While yesterday’s vote suggests little will change about the actual distribution of power in Tunisia, it does set the country up on a potentially incendiary course. Watch this space as the saying goes.