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Russia is fighting a terrorist’s war

Ukraine may, with enough support, be able to hold off Russia indefinitely. But that will not avert humanitarian catastrophes.

By Harry Lambert

We are on the 12th day of the Russia-Ukraine war, but perhaps that is not the right phrase for it. Bruno Maçães, a regular in our pages, yesterday described Russia’s invasion as “the battle plan a terrorist organisation would have”. Many have been heartened by Ukraine’s defence, and the striking failings of Russia’s army, but Bruno addresses the key point: “Yes, Russia is incapable of fighting a war but what does it matter? They are not fighting the Ukrainian army. They are murdering civilians and destroying military and industrial infrastructure.”

That puts this morning’s papers in context. Almost every front page focuses on the shooting of civilians yesterday by Russian forces, in violation of agreed humanitarian corridors. “Families flee for their lives”, says the Times. “Save them”, pleads the Mirror. “Pure evil”, says the Express, a sentiment echoed by the Telegraph (“’Barbaric’ Putin rains down terror”). Only the Mail shifts its focus, running with comments from Tony Radakin, the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, that “Putin’s victory is not inevitable”.

There was some apparent progress on that front over the weekend, with the FT splashing on Saturday night the news that the US was working with Poland to provide Ukraine with fighter jets, reviving a week-old plan that had seemingly collapsed last Monday. Yesterday Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said that the US was “working actively” on the plan, which would transfer MiG-29 planes to Ukraine from Poland and perhaps from Bulgaria and Slovakia (as these countries possess the Russian-made jets that Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly), and in turn expedite the delivery to these countries of US-made replacement jets.

But I can tell you that there was – as of Saturday night – no such plan in place. I spoke to Sławomir Dębski, the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a long-running government-funded think tank with close links to the Polish state. Dębski told me yesterday that the “US had no plan whatsoever” when the Polish and American governments spoke on Saturday. “I doubt they have drafted one overnight,” he said.

Theoretically, says Dębski, a deal could be done, but US leadership will be necessary and is currently lacking, despite new enthusiasm for the plan from US senators after Zelensky pressed them by video link on Saturday. “US senators will fight for Ukraine to the last Pole, Slovak or Bulgarian, we know that,” noted Dębski dryly, “but if they are serious they should come with a ready plan of how to do it”.

The story exemplifies how much international reaction has changed since even the first days of the war. A week ago, American media had largely accepted the imminent defeat of Ukraine. All the talk was instead of the coming underground insurgency that would be mounted by Ukraine’s surviving troops. Now the world appears to have woken up to the possibility that Ukraine may, with enough support, be able to hold off Russia indefinitely. But that will not avert humanitarian catastrophes on the ground – catastrophes that it is painfully difficult to see how the West can prevent.

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