The Observer view: as the world dithers, Ukraine’s plight grows ever more precarious | Observer editorial

Ukrainians were understandably dismayed last week as they watched the US, Britain and France rush to defend Israel against a barrage of Iranian missiles and armed drones.

That’s not because they support the regime in Tehran. It’s because Nato countries have denied similar, direct military support to Ukraine, which faces unending, indiscriminate aerial attacks by Russian forces. Israel was spared any fatalities. In Ukraine, civilians continue to die almost daily, most recently in the city of Chernihiv, where 17 people were killed and dozens more injured.

More than two years into the war that began with Vladimir Putin’s illegal, full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s plight grows more concerning. There is a strengthening possibility that, despite heroic resistance, it could succumb to Russia’s aggression. Such a defeat would be a catastrophe, primarily for Ukraine, but also for the future security of Europe, for countries such as Moldova and Estonia that are targets of Russian destabilisation operations, for Britain’s defence, for US global leadership and for all who value individual freedoms, democracy and the rule of law.

Ukraine’s leaders are disarmingly frank about their country’s perilous situation. The army’s senior commander, Gen Oleksandr Syrsky, warned that Russia’s growing advantage in manpower, ammunition and in the air meant territorial losses may be inevitable. The position of Ukrainian forces has “worsened significantly”, Syrsky said. Sounding the alarm, president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukrainian intelligence believes the Kremlin is preparing a major offensive for late spring or early summer. It is unclear how it may be repelled.

Russia is readily exploiting newly exposed Ukrainian vulnerabilities, for example by targeting power plants and civilian infrastructure. This is possibly due to Ukraine’s chronic deficit in modern air defence systems. Germany agreed to provide another Patriot missile battery (though not much-needed Taurus missiles). But Zelenskiy says Ukraine requires 25 Patriot batteries. It has two. Exasperatingly, its response – bombing Russian oil refineries – to Moscow’s new tactics has been criticised by the Americans over fears about rising energy prices.

Putin claimed recently he was attacking power plants in spring rather than winter “out of humanitarian considerations”. His comment typified the sickening smugness that characterises Russia’s war narrative. Putin thinks he’s winning, not least because the western democracies seem to be losing their belief in, and focus on, a Ukrainian victory. In view of the wrangling in the US Congress over new military aid for Kyiv leading up to last night’s crucial vote, it’s getting harder to argue Putin is mistaken.

It is true that the Israel-Hamas war, and Iran’s attack on Israel, are redirecting attention and resources. Support for Kyiv is increasingly politically contentious in EU countries, as recent polls in Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and the Netherlands have shown. In France and Germany, far-right populist parties are using the war as a wedge issue before June’s European parliament elections. In the US, Donald Trump fans anti-Ukraine, anti-Europe sentiment to undermine president Joe Biden.

Regardless, western leaders must urgently accelerate and expand military support for Kyiv. Recognising how high the stakes are for Europe, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz have recently re-emphasised their countries’ solidarity with Ukraine, as has Rishi Sunak.

Yet words are not translating into concrete and sufficient action, or at least not quickly enough. To its shame, US-led Nato continues to hang back, as it has from the start, when it might have made all the difference. Last week, alliance members belatedly offered additional air defence systems at a “crisis summit”. Meanwhile, Ukraine stares into the abyss.

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