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The Guardian view on Ukraine’s suffering: no end in sight

This article is more than 1 month old

Kyiv is reckoning not only with Russia’s brutal military assault but the difficulties of maintaining European solidarity

A residential building damaged by a Russian military strike in Sievierodonetsk.
‘The eastern city of Sievierodonetsk is the latest scene of civilian suffering.’ Photograph: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters
‘The eastern city of Sievierodonetsk is the latest scene of civilian suffering.’ Photograph: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

In the hours following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, every moment that Kyiv could hold out was regarded as a victory. Many – not only in the Kremlin – expected it to fall within days. Vladimir Putin’s hubris, Russian military shortcomings, courageous Ukrainian resistance and the sight of western nations rushing to show support created a glimmer of hope. Three and a half months on, the picture has darkened again. After Mariupol, Bucha and others, the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk is the latest scene of civilian suffering.

Kyiv faces two immense challenges. The first is that Russia’s military has regrouped, concentrating its efforts on the Donbas, improving logistics and making other adjustments. The war has, for now at least, turned in its favour. It continues to make incremental gains while suffering severe losses of personnel and equipment. Ukraine has the will, but Russia has a tenfold advantage in firepower, according to Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. It is also easier to take a town if you do not mind destroying it. Ukraine, on its own estimates, is losing more than 100 soldiers a day, with hundreds more injured, and is increasingly reliant on enthusiastic but inexperienced newer recruits.

The second challenge is maintaining external support. European nations are already divided over how much assistance to provide and how hard to press Moscow, and domestic political pressures will grow as countries struggle with the rising cost of living and soaring energy costs as winter approaches. The response to Ukraine’s very ambitious request for more heavy weaponry this week will be critical. On Wednesday, defence ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss future arms donations. On Thursday, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will reportedly visit Kyiv with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi.

Unlike the UK, the Baltic states and Poland, these nations have been more hesitant on arms supplies and lean towards peace talks. Kyiv is visibly frustrated with delays in the arrival of promised German weaponry. Volodymyr Zelenskiy has also been understandably sharp in responding to Mr Macron’s remark that “we are not going to humiliate Russia”. Though an off-ramp is necessary when dealing with an autocrat with nuclear weapons, however little interest he shows in it, the comment was ill-judged. Last week, Mr Putin compared himself to Peter the Great, the 18th-century tsar, who he said did not seize but reclaim land from Sweden. “It seems it has fallen to us, too, to reclaim and strengthen,” the president said.

Ukraine’s will is hardened not only by such rhetoric, but by the suffering its people have endured and the war crimes they have witnessed. A peace deal cannot be imposed upon it, and no one is foolish or cruel enough to say that it should be. But it can only continue to withstand Moscow with sufficient backing. If it can maintain substantial support – and if, therefore, its forces can successfully transition off Soviet-standard weaponry to western, and sanctions begin to really bite in Russia – the military balance might start to tilt towards Ukraine. Set against that, in the US, by far the largest supplier of arms, Joe Biden is increasingly preoccupied by domestic problems and Russia may hope for a more amenable president in a few years.

While some military analysts anticipate an operational pause in the near future, due to the exhaustion of forces on both sides, they foresee at best a brief respite, not a path to resolution. Given all that Ukrainians have endured, the prospect of months and years more of war is unbearable. But hopes of bringing this conflict to a swift end appear as ill-founded as Mr Putin’s initial belief that he could rapidly unseat Mr Zelenskiy.