In Mariupol hundreds of Ukrainians are dying a day. Russian forces are bombarding the city and depriving residents of food, water and medicine. In other shelled Ukrainian cities, local officials and activists are being kidnapped or killed. In conquered towns and villages, Russian soldiers are shooting civilians.
Every day the calls for Western action grow. The British public wants more economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia and more weapons to be supplied to Ukraine. In the US, a majority support a no-fly zone, however untenable Nato considers that to be. German voters back a ban on Russian gas. In Western capitals it is politicians who are lagging behind a horrified and hawkish public.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia was long foreseen but its consequences were not. In 2016 Barack Obama, in his last year as US president, frankly conceded that the West would not defend Ukraine against Russian aggression. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-Nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he told an interviewer in the course of explaining his realist American foreign policy. “This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”
Obama’s fatalism, for all its frank calculation, has proven unrealistic. As the terror of Russia’s invasion has unfolded online, 24 countries have sent lethal aid to Ukraine. Having failed to help protect the country for years — the Obama administration refused to sell Ukraine offensive weapons for fear of aggravating Russia — the West is acting late. That is true of Britain too, although it was one of the first countries to send weapons. In Whitehall, a vast amount of ministerial and senior time is at last being spent on working out how to give Ukraine all it needs to defend itself, within the parameters currently agreed by Nato allies: the avoidance of direct conflict with Russia.
Everything changed in the opening days of the war when Ukraine’s armed forces held Russia at bay. The source of Western unity, as a Whitehall official puts it, is the resilience of Ukraine. Western governments no longer believe in the inevitability of Russian military domination. And the UK, government officials will tell you, has never given up on Ukraine or its ability to defend itself. Britain’s support for Ukraine, they add, is far from tokenistic. But is it enough?
There are ministers and officials who think not, despite the UK having supplied Ukraine with 3,600 highly effective light anti-tank weapons and extensive humanitarian assistance. As the daily images of annihilation attest, Western support so far is insufficient. What more can Britain and its Nato allies do? What is determining the battle on the ground, and the fate of Ukraine?
“What we need, and what we’re asking for,” Vadym Prystaiko, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, said when we met on 11 March, “is to just allow us to be armed, to at least balance the forces.” He added to calls from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for Western allies to “close the skies” over Ukraine.
The problem for the West is that Ukraine’s forces cannot, in all likelihood, be equipped to match Russia’s forces. There are a host of advanced military capabilities that Ukrainian troops cannot acquire in the midst of war; many Western weapons — from modern fighter jets to anti-aircraft and missile defence systems — cannot be supplied. That makes it hard for allies to give Ukraine the weapons it needs to close its skies and prevent Russian missiles, artillery and aircraft from devastating Ukraine. “We could give them Patriot air defence systems,” Doug Lute, a former general and US ambassador to Nato, tells me, “but we spend a couple of years training US operators to use those.”
No such time exists. Much of the debate about helping Ukraine to defend its skies has focused on supplying the country with more fighter jets from Poland and other eastern Nato allies who fly the MiG-29 planes with which Ukrainian pilots are familiar. The US government is reluctant to facilitate their transfer despite rare bipartisan support for the plan among US senators.
That debate, aviation experts stress, is something of a sideshow. Aircraft are hard to protect and maintain, and the number on offer — around 50 — is unlikely to transform Ukraine’s ability to contest the skies. At present Ukraine’s 56 operational planes are flying just five to ten sorties a day. That would not even require an aircraft tasking order, the most basic level of operational planning, says Andy Netherwood, a former RAF squadron leader.
The public tends to think air defence is defined by planes. This perception — informed by historical images of fighter aces during the Battle of Britain — is misleading. In reality, the best way for Ukraine to protect its skies is through the mass transfer of surface-to-air missile systems capable of shooting down planes and cruise missiles from the ground; as with planes, it is the former Warsaw Pact countries in eastern Europe that have the Soviet-era equipment that Ukrainians could operate.
By supplying those, says Lute, who oversaw American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, “you could up the ante in terms of Ukrainian capability without having to up the training requirement”. After the public furore over the provision of MiGs, many military analysts think these systems may be being provided surreptitiously. These ground-based missile systems complement the shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile launchers — known as Stingers and Javelins, primarily supplied by the US — capable of firing at low-flying aircraft.
Providing enough such weapons for Ukraine “to deal with anything in the air by ourselves”, as Prystaiko put it to me, would require an “enormous effort”. Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe after Russia: it is 815 miles wide, a greater distance than that between London and Vienna. Ukraine cannot close all of its skies. And there are Russian threats that it has little hope of rebuffing, namely ballistic missiles fired from Belarus or ships in Russia’s Black Sea fleet. On 13 March, such missiles struck a military training base on the Ukrainian border with Poland, killing 35 people.
The only consolation, Lute tells me, is that Russia’s supply of precision-guided ballistic missiles appears to be running low. He and others note that supplies used in Russia’s military campaign in Syria do not appear to have been replenished.
In any case, the greatest damage being done to Ukraine’s cities is from indiscriminate shelling by artillery batteries. Ukraine’s best hope of countering this shelling, says Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, the defence think tank, is to attack Russia’s artillery supply vehicles. Artillery is resource-intensive: it requires a constant supply of ammunition that Ukrainian forces can target with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and heavy machine guns.
There is no silver bullet. “Look, it’s a superpower army against a less equipped army,” says a British official. “But look at the casualty figures. It’s a serious contest.” Watling, an analyst of land warfare, is, however, concerned that “the public narrative has underplayed Ukrainian casualties, and the quite small scale at which Ukrainian forces are able to mount counterattacks”. Russia has failed to deploy en masse in Ukraine so far, having banked on an improbably rapid seizure of the country, but “if the Russians decide to go for this”, with all the costs that would involve, says Watling, “they have the people, and they can arm them, and they are likely to take quite a lot of Ukrainian territory”.
The Russian operational plan, says Watling, however morally abhorrent, is militarily “relatively sound”. “They don’t need to attack cities because they can starve cities. That’s what’s killing Mariupol at the moment. It’s not being stormed, it’s running out of food.” Aside from the seizure of Kyiv, the key operational aim for Russia is to link its forces fighting in Kharkiv in the north-east with those fighting in Mariupol in the south. By doing so, Russian troops could encircle the Ukrainian forces fighting on the front line in the Donbas, the eastern region where Russian-backed separatists have declared two independent statelets, potentially shifting the war decisively in Russia’s favour. “The longer those cities hold out,” says Watling, “the fewer forces Russia can devote to the Donbas.”
Lute is less convinced that Russia will be able to encircle Ukraine’s eastern forces, which are among Ukraine’s best trained troops. And as Russian forces advance, Lute adds, their supply lines will become increasingly stretched, straining Russia’s ability to feed or arm its troops. “The Russians, by way of organisation and training, don’t prioritise logistics,” Lute says. “This goes back to their World War Two units, which were just considered to be expendable.”
Ukraine’s forces, in contrast, are being supplied by international aid flowing over the borders of four Nato countries. Much of that aid, says Lute, comprises “things that don’t make the headlines, and they’re not lethal, but they’re absolutely required to sustain the war effort”, such as secure communications, rations and medical supplies, all of which are being neglected by Russia’s military command. “This will be a contest of logistics,” says Lute, one that Ukrainian forces — thanks to British and international support — appear to be winning.
And what if Russia escalates its campaign of terror in Ukraine? How might the West respond? British officials fear a range of escalations: from strikes on arms depots to chemical weapons attacks, a tactical nuclear strike or the “Grozny-fication” of Kyiv, as Boris Johnson put it — referring to the Russian siege of the Chechen capital in 1999-2000.
Crucially, officials indicate that the West’s current aversion to direct military intervention is not absolute. After the failure of the West to enforce its supposed “red lines” in Syria, Nato allies are wary of proclaiming ultimatums and then failing to act. But if the crimes against Ukrainian civilians continue, and the humanitarian situation deteriorates further, officials concede that they do not know what comes next. “People don’t know, people are absorbing the war each day as it happens and reacting to it,” one said. That leaves open the possibility of a change in the West’s vow to avoid direct military conflict with Russia.
Lute believes the West needs to be much sharper in its efforts to deter Putin from escalation. “We need to refine our threat to him of using chemical weapons. Biden said it would be really bad, which Johnson echoed. That’s not enough. We need to take seriously this escalation to a chemical or biological threat.”
Biden, to the dismay of many strategic experts, has explicitly ruled out military action in the event of a chemical attack, a signal that Ukraine’s ambassador says he cannot understand. “Why would you have to repeat this each and every day?” Prystaiko asks. “That we are not coming to help you? Don’t tell the Ukrainians every day that they’re on their own. Why would you deprive people of hope?” Biden has since stressed that Putin would pay a “severe price” for any such attack.
No one knows how the West might respond to the continued siege of the people of Ukraine, or to the next stage of Russian warfare. Public will, which has become increasingly belligerent in recent weeks, may shift even more dramatically if Putin persists with his barbaric war. Western military aid can only achieve so much.
Whatever happens, the pressure to respond will come from the bottom up, not the top down. Politicians and diplomats are rightly cautious about taking any action that could increase the risk of nuclear escalation, however slightly. But, as Watling notes, “we live in democracies”. If the calls to help Ukraine become deafening, Western governments may have to act. Inside Whitehall, nothing has been ruled out.