Britain should be bolder in bringing much-needed support to Ukraine before the worst of the winter hits
My friend Anna was returning from a holiday in Lisbon when Russian rockets started slamming into Kyiv on 10 October. As she dragged her luggage through deserted streets, she heard explosions rock the city over the wail of air raid sirens.
She arrived home to find a black bin liner draped hastily over a body outside. The victim had been waiting for a bus when he was knocked backwards off the stop bench. A cat peered out of its carrier next to his body, seemingly perplexed by the leather jacket pulled over its owner’s face.
The next week the suicide drones started. Swarms of Iranian-made Shahed-136s descended on the city, striking electricity and central heating infrastructure. Anna’s university classmate Viktoria Zamchenko and her husband Bohdan were killed, along with the unborn child that would have been their Christmas present.
The government has a historic opportunity to protect peaceful people from the worst excesses of totalitarianism
Death has already become part of daily routine in this European capital, still home to roughly two million people. Unless governments act now, it is about to get much worse. The drones keep coming, and new Iranian Fateh and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles are on their way to replenish an exhausted Kremlin arsenal.
President Vladimir Putin wants to freeze the Ukrainian population into submission during the country’s sub-zero winter. Thousands will die and millions suffer if he is not stopped. Ukraine’s population relies on a centralised heating system powered by plants Moscow is intent on obliterating. Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky says a third of the country’s power plants have already been destroyed.
American NASAMS anti-aircraft systems are on their way to Ukraine, but not quickly enough. And the cheap drones are designed to fly en masse, overwhelming systems that could shoot them down. Now Iran is backing the depleted Kremlin war effort, it is time to reappraise how Britain helps Ukraine.
The government has a historic opportunity to protect peaceful people from the worst excesses of totalitarianism, just as the Americans came to our aid while London reeled from the Blitz. Britain and its Nato allies have so far resisted Ukraine’s calls to make any part of its airspace a no-fly zone, fearing open conflict with the Kremlin.
Today the threat is limited to unmanned drones and missiles, so Britain should rethink this. Russian jets no longer stray beyond the front lines – there is little risk of killing Russian pilots. Safe zones away from front lines would allow people in other areas of Ukraine to recover and rebuild.
At the very least, Britain should help Ukraine obtain the modern jets it needs to shoot down drones, as well as to strike the Russian airbases they are launched from. There are currently six Ukrainian pilots to every plane. The UK should provide long range ATACMS missiles that can hit their launchpads with precision, eliminating the threat at source, and deliver main battle tanks that can help end the ground war sooner. If London leads even with a small gesture, others, such as Berlin, will follow. It is time to abandon the fallacy that supplying a jet will lead to nuclear holocaust, but supplying missile launchers will not.
The Foreign Office must look at Iran too, driving Europe into stronger sanctions aimed at curbing Tehran’s ability to produce and ship the Kremlin’s new weapons.
Winter is coming. Kyiv switched on its heating system for the first time on October 20, but city authorities have had to ask people not to use electricity at peak times to avoid overloading the system. That means more hours lost for small business owners like Anna, who runs her own fitness centre.
Huddling with her trainers in the centre’s office, they discuss the friends they have lost and whether to follow others that have fled to western Europe, how to eke out a living and stay sane under near constant bombardment. There are tears and hugs. They wonder what it will take for the world to act to stop this.
Maxim Tucker, assistant foreign editor and former Kyiv correspondent at The Times.
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