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Without more planes from the West Ukraine can’t defend itself

An EU plan to send aircraft from Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria appears to have collapsed.

By Harry Lambert

A week ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I wrote to you about sanctions and the UK’s pitiful response to Putin’s preliminary incursions into Ukraine. Russia’s full-scale invasion began 24 hours later. Now, the world has changed. Russia is being cut off from the West and is headed for economic collapse. Germany is rearming. Britons who have never held a gun are signing up to fight for Ukraine. And Volodymyr Zelensky, a man few had heard of last week, has become the tribune of the free world.  

What now? Despite Ukraine’s miraculous resistance, the situation is dark. The papers this morning are full of foreboding. “Leave now, Putin warns, as he prepares to bombard Kyiv,” says the Times, while the Mail calls for readers to “Pray for Kyiv”, warning that Putin is “bent on reducing [the] capital to rubble”. The Sun focuses on the Russian bombing near the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv, while the other tabloids herald the spirit of Zelensky’s words to the European Parliament yesterday. “Nobody will break us,” says the Mirror; “Blitzed… but never beaten,” says the Express

But, as in 1940, resolve and defiance only count for so much. What Zelensky needs now, as Churchill needed then, is international support. The Telegraph’s headline – “Zelensky pleads with West to prevent genocide” – best captures the urgency of the moment.  

Yesterday, in a rare interview with CNN ahead of Biden’s State of the Union address last night, Zelensky reiterated his request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a move that many fear would precipitate a war with Russia, a nuclear power. Both Britain and the US have ruled out a no fly, although the idea has its backers – including former commanders of British and Nato forces, and the parliamentary Defence Committee chair Tobias Ellwood, who told me on Saturday that the scale of atrocity in Ukraine may soon force the West to impose one. 

In the near term, there is a more fruitful debate to be had: will Nato countries give Ukraine the planes they need to defend themselves? On Sunday the EU’s foreign affairs chief suggested that Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria would provide Ukraine with 50 or so MiG-29 fighter planes; these countries alone possess the jets that Ukrainian pilots can instantly fly. But that plan appears to have collapsed in the past 48 hours. Without more planes Ukraine will struggle to contest the skies over Kyiv and Kharkiv, and to protect their civilians from Russia’s increasingly indiscriminate and inhumane campaign of bombing and shelling.

For how long will the West be able to watch as Ukrainians die while Nato jets that could be provided to Ukraine stand by? Already in the past week public opinion has hardened; nearly one in three Britons want direct air strikes on Russian targets in Ukraine. That would be a drastic step. But the question casting a pall over Westminster this morning and this week is how Britain and the West can de-escalate this crisis and help save Ukraine.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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